Low pay, high stress and crummy hours are causing a shortage of operators to manage 911 calls in Volusia County.
The Volusia County Sheriff’s Office currently has 20.5 vacancies on what’s supposed to be a team of 166 full-time telecommunicators. Plus, 13 operators are new and not yet trained to manage calls, so the roster is actually short 33.5 people.
Emergencies happen around the clock, seven days a week. Volusia County’s 145.5 operators work 12-hour shifts. They are required to work overtime, in a job that is already so stressful that many leave before they are fully trained.
Volusia County’s telecommunicators are the third-lowest-paid among 32 agencies in Central Florida that responded to a 2017 comparison study by Volusia County staff.
Starting pay is $12.74 per hour, and the pay caps at $23.95, according to the Volusia County Human Resources website, where there is a permanent posting for the position.
Few telecommunicators will reach that $23-per-hour pinnacle.
“For employees hired over the last six years, the maximum pay is a myth they cannot achieve,” VCSO Communications Director John Balloni stated in an email.
For 10 years, Volusia County employees have been limited to 3-percent cost-of-living raises, rather than merit increases, according to county spokeswoman Joanne Magley.
“If the county gives the COLA raise across the board, the minimum pay goes up a little, but the maximum also can go up by the same percentage,” according to Balloni. “That means they could work here for 40 years, and be no closer to the maximum pay than the day they got to Level 3.”
Level 3 telecommunicators start at $15.15 hourly. It can take up to two years to reach that level.
Too many don’t stay that long.
“We have lost 14 people since Jan. 1, 2018,” Balloni stated. “A new class of 15 will start April 23, but we would have to be very lucky to keep up with the attrition.”
He added, “I believe we actually are budgeted enough positions if we could ever get them all hired and trained. The attrition rate makes this impossible.”
He listed three basic reasons for high turnover.
“First it is the stress of a job where lives hang in the balance and you need to work weekends, holidays and nights,” Balloni wrote. “Second is the mandatory overtime, which is largely caused by the high turnover in personnel.”
Finally, he cited low pay.
It’s difficult to attract and keep employees when equal-paying, less stressful jobs are available, Balloni stated.
Stress is the No. 1 reason for people leaving, agreed DeLandite Kathy Chace, a 15-year telecommunicator and assistant supervisor.
“They take on the feelings of the callers and have a hard time processing that,” she said. “The need to disassociate yourself from someone else’s emergency is probably the toughest thing to learn.”
Though she has learned to separate herself, Chace is not impervious.
“I carry two calls with me to this day,” she said, warning that she might cry.
The first was from a man who awoke to discover his wife of 28 years had died in her sleep.
“He was just sobbing, that heart-wrenching ‘I have lost everything’ sob,” Chace said, searching through a drawer for a tissue as tears came. “I still carry that with me, and I took that call in 2005.”
The second involved a child.
“A 3-month-old had passed away at home,” she said.
The parents had rushed the child to an EVAC ambulance parked near their home. The call came in on a non-emergency line. Paramedics started CPR and employed the automatic emergency defibrillator, but the baby could not be revived.
“All I did was hear that. I wasn’t even really involved,” Chace said. “I just had to get other emergency services there.”
She also recalled the caller who’d been shot by a jealous partner. The mortally wounded woman gave the male shooter’s name and said she was dying. The caller lost consciousness before giving her location. GPS narrowed the vicinity, and the shooter was found and arrested. The woman died.
In a similar incident, after the shooter killed himself, the wounded spouse gathered the two children and drove away. Chace had to guide a hysterical 13-year-old boy to persuade the woman to stop the vehicle so that he could provide a location for Chase to send help, and so the woman did not lose consciousness while driving.
“You definitely have to have the right mentality to do this job,” Chace said.
April 14 marked workday three of eight for Chace. After her 96-hour workweek, she would have two days off, then would go back for nine days straight.
On average, she said, she works 62 hours per week.
“My longest stint was 17 days in a row,” she said. “I have one to two days off a week, and they’re rarely together. On these days are when we have to cram appointments … so we rarely have the proverbial ‘day off.’ Even when we take vacation, we still have to cover our overtime, which means sometimes the only time we get off [in a month] is that vacation.”
If the agency were fully staffed, the employees would each have about 15 days off a month. In reality, Chase said, they’re lucky to get six or seven.
“This leaves very little time for a home life,” she said. “I’ve missed the majority of holidays since I started and have missed many birthdays and major life events.”
Chase doesn’t have children, but said she has seen many mothers visiting theirs via FaceTime to maintain a daily connection.
Chase works every holiday so some who have children don’t have to.
“For those of us of tenure, it truly is an act of love,” she said.
While most jobs include some multi-tasking, this job demands it every minute.
Chace described the process experienced in the telecommunicator’s seat, in front of multiple computer screens, each displaying crucial information.
“First, we have to listen,” she said, explaining that means being fully present to gather important details, not merely poised to respond. “Then we have to think about what we need next that they haven’t already told us.”
Simultaneously, the call-takers have to anticipate what they will need to know next. It will depend upon the caller’s answer to follow-up questions.
“All while listening to the room to make sure whoever is going to dispatch doesn’t need more information,” she said. “It’s pretty nonstop.”
Typically, telecommunicators also are training new employees.
Up-to-speed telecommunicators have completed 1,600 to 1,700 hours of training, according to Chace.
She said 60-70 percent of the current workforce includes veterans like her who have been doing the job for more than eight years.
On Tuesday — Day 6 of eight straight — Chase moved from role to role. She covered dispatcher breaks, communicating with law-enforcement officers who were responding to situations that included a 15-year-old girl, allegedly high on methamphetamine, who was threatening to kill her family.
Moving back across the room, she began answering 911 calls. A man and woman were fighting. Chace had to calm the elderly man and extract details while the woman raged in the background.
A distraught elderly woman calls regularly to report an intruder in her home. Each time, a unit is sent to her address, but there is never an intruder.
Endless patience is a must.
Chace copes by taking walks and leaving work behind the Communications Center door.
At home, she curls up with her cat and a book.
She enjoys video-gaming and goes to the shooting range.
“That’s a great stress-reliever,” she said.
At work, a door leads from “the floor” to a room where employees can break down if necessary.
It’s often necessary.
“We’re like a cup,” Chace said. “The longer we’re here, the more we experience, the larger our cups. Sometimes we can get rid of it before it overflows. Sometimes we can’t.”
She and fellow employees on the Critical Incident Stress Management Team offer peer-to-peer assistance, like counseling, she said.
“We help them talk through their feelings,” Chace said. “If somebody takes a particularly critical call or needs to talk or just wants to be by themselves in the dark, they can. And, we provide tissues, because it does get very stressful on the floor.”
She adds, “We try to keep it positive, not ‘You did this wrong or that wrong,’ because people do that to themselves enough.”
Public service was always the plan for Chace, whose parents were firefighters.
Despite the stress, long hours and subpar pay, she said, it’s her calling.
What’s left to love?
“Believe it or not, absolutely everything,” Chace said. “You have a feeling of accomplishment. Even if no one tells you, you know that something you’ve done that day saved a life. I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else in my life. I found my niche.”
She keeps a picture with a message in one of the windows on a computer screen. It reads: “Every moment is a new beginning. Take a deep breath, smile and start again.”