County’s 911 center ramps up staffing to fill vacancies after pandemic

Fairfax County’s 911 operations floor in the McConnell Public Safety & Transportation Operations Center (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Handling 911 calls has never been a regular 9-to-5 job, but a national staffing shortage has increased the hours and pressure felt by call takers and dispatchers across the country.

Fairfax County’s Department of Public Safety Communications wasn’t spared from the workforce challenges that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic, dropping from close to 180 staffers before 2020 to about 160 people right now.

The gap is sizable enough that workers are required to take about two overtime shifts every four months, but it’s not as drastic as the vacancy levels reported at other sites, even though the DPSC is the biggest 911 center in Virginia and one of the largest in the U.S., Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) Officer Paul Ballerini says.

For instance, Richmond’s 911 agency, the state’s second largest center, reported earlier this year that it was 30 operators short, while D.C. had 39 call taker and dispatcher vacancies.

“Two additional mandatory shifts per person for a third of the year is not bad, especially hearing [about] other centers, reading online how some other similar-sized agencies are just doing tons of overtime,” Ballerini told FFXnow.

Initially, the pandemic didn’t have much of an impact on the 911 center. With people generally staying home and minimizing interactions with others, the volume of calls declined, according to Ballerini.

However, after a while, DPSC started seeing some of the same turnover that has hit other professions, from the police to trash collectors and restaurants.

“Like most other professions, people just started jumping jobs,” Ballerini said. “Not in a bad way, just people spent more time on themselves and learned about themselves and moved to other professions. So, we were hit the same as everybody else…so we started ramping up hiring and training.”

About 3,952 911 workers across 774 centers in the U.S. left the profession in 2022, often citing the stress of the job and options for better hours, pay and opportunities as their reasons for leaving, according to a study released earlier this year by the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch and National Association of State 911 Administrators.

While 27% saw no change in staffing levels over the past four years, nearly one-third of the study’s respondents reported vacancy rates of 30% or higher, including 13 that said at least 70% of their positions were unfilled.

Ballerini says Fairfax County’s current 911 staffing levels are slightly above its minimum standard after hitting maximum levels before the pandemic.

Every 12-hour shift must have at least four police dispatchers and four fire dispatchers on each of its four squads, which manage two district stations each. There are also ideally 20 call takers per day, though there can be as few as 13 people on the phones depending on the workload.

“Some people get through parts of training and realize it’s not for them and end up dropping out, but we work hard to try to stay consistent levels, not just for the public, but for morale inside the center,” Ballerini said. “I feel we’ve been pretty decent about doing that.”

Relief from mandatory overtime may be in sight for the county’s call takers, who handle incoming calls from the public, and dispatchers, who communicate information to first responders.

DPSC recently welcomed its latest class of trainees, adding six new call takers. As of July 13, all but one of them had completed their on-the-job training, which takes eight to 10 weeks, according to Ballerini.

Another cohort of nine recruits is undergoing 10 weeks of classroom training at the Public Safety Communications Training Academy, which accepts up to 10 people per class. After those recruits finish their on-the-job training this fall, Ballerini says DPSC anticipates that it’ll be able to reduce the amount of overtime required.

Recruiting for this fall’s academy is now underway, with a job posting open through Friday (July 28).

The 911 center is also hiring in preparation for the Lorton District Police Station’s impending opening in September. The new facility will help lighten the load for the Franconia and Mount Vernon stations, which are DSPC’s busiest.

“They’ve been…figuring out how to balance them out, so the quantity of calls or time spent on calls is supposed to be a lot more consistent across all stations,” Ballerini said. “That’s a hope for the future. It’s a police department initiative, but it’s going to benefit us as well.”