Last month Durham City Council member DeDreana Freeman called 911 to report that a 17-year-old boy had been shot in the parking lot of a convenience store at East Main and South Elm streets.
Freeman, who lives in the community, heard gunshots while inside her home. Her husband went outside to see what was going on after they heard a woman screaming.
Four minutes passed before an emergency dispatcher answered her call.
Freeman told the INDY that the 911 line rang repeatedly while she watched the teen’s life energy bleed out into the asphalt.
“I called at least twice,” Freeman says. “My husband and a neighbor tried to get through as well.”
Another neighbor, Kosta Grammatis, posted on social media that “women were howling, men were pacing on their phones trying to get through to 911.
“A boy, red shirt, closed eyes, lay motionless on the boiling sidewalk. Blood pooling around him,” Grammatis wrote. “It took 15 rings before the 911 dispatcher picked up my call, ‘police on the way.’ We waited. The police station is a block away, but we waited.
“And as they pulled up a man started screaming and stomped right up to them: ‘Where the FUCK have you been?! Where the fuck HAVE YOU BEEN?!’”
Freeman later learned the teen died of his injuries at the hospital. Durham Emergency Communications Center [DECC] director Randy Beeman says the DECC is reviewing the call and officer response time.
Never mind minutes, seconds can make a world of difference during tragedies like the one Freeman and her neighbors witnessed on August 11, just after 6:30 p.m. And the Bull City is enduring a 911 staffing shortage. Emergency officials say the city needs call-takers, dispatchers, and supervisors quick, fast, and in a hurry to answer the phones and alert first responders.
Things have gotten so bad that the 911 center this year started routing emergency calls to Raleigh’s emergency communications center. The mutual aid ended this summer when Durham’s emergency call volume was at its highest.
Emergency officials have assembled short-term and long-term initiatives to bring in more workers, including online notices, social media postings, and job fairs. Last week, DECC officials hosted a job fair where 32 attendees applied for jobs.
Earlier this month, 25 people applied for jobs with the 911 Center.
The DECC is also working hard to retain its current employees with bonus incentives, double time pay, salary increases, and shifts that allow for a holistic “work-life balance.”
Durham’s Public Affairs Director Beverly Thompson confirmed in an email that the Bull City’s emergency communications center—not unlike many 911 centers across the country—is facing a staffing shortage.
Thompson says Durham has “experienced elevated vacancies for a number of years.”
Last week, as of late Friday afternoon, only 50 of the 911 Center’s 83 full-time positions had been filled. More pointedly, just 30 of the 60 frontline positions for call-takers, dispatchers, and shift supervisors were occupied, according to DECC statistics.
Thompson points to the pandemic as “a critical factor” in the shortages experienced over the past year.
“The shortages were felt acutely when staff called out due to illness or were quarantined due to COVID exposure,” she adds. “Our high vacancy rate does have an impact on the workload for remaining staff, and we acknowledge it has resulted in some extended wait times.”
Earlier this month, Beeman pointed to another reason to explain the 911 center’s high vacancy rate: the agency can’t seem to retain its employees.
Thompson said the 911 center remains “fully functional,” despite the challenges and wants to remind callers to stay on the line if they dial 911.
“Don’t hang up,” she added.
But city council member Mark-Anthony Middleton said during a September 9 city council work session that he’s “not comfortable” with the city in a “somewhat spectator” posture, watching and hoping for a better outcome in the midst of an ongoing 911 response crisis. Middleton called for an “all hands on deck” approach, including again routing emergency calls to another municipality.
The impact of the staffing vacancies reached a dismal apex in July when 911 dispatchers fielded its highest number of calls for the year: 27,913, according to the DECC call data.
Beeman, during the work session, told city council members that July’s call total was the most the 911 center had received over a one-month period in five years.
“The August data will look a lot like the July data,” Durham Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson told the council members.
Thompson said as of July, the average call answer time is just over 10 seconds for someone dialing 911 in Durham.
Beeman stated the obvious during his presentation at the city council work session: a fully functioning 911 center is critically important.
“I recognize and take responsibility that we are not meeting acceptable standards of call answer times,” Beeman said. “We are not meeting the expectations of our residents or visitors when  callers are not able to receive assistance at an appropriate time for emergencies.”
Thompson said the 911 center is “continually evaluating the optimal staffing needed during various times” to meet the industry standard: 90 percent of all 911 calls answered in 10 seconds or less.
Working at the 911 center is not a bad gig. It pays better than so-called “essential worker” positions like those at McDonald’s, WalMart, or Freddy’s, whose employees in Durham and across the country have been clamoring for a living wage of at least $15 an hour and a union. The starting salary at the 911 center for an entry level call-taker is $38,168 a year, with benefits.
Beeman said the 911 center is shoring up the staffing shortage by asking administrative staffers and call-takers to be available when needed. The center is receiving help from 911 staffers with the fire department, sheriff’s office, emergency medical services, and Duke University. Some former and retired employees who are working part-time, on average about 20 hours a week, are also assisting the center.
Middleton asked Beeman if the city is better off now than when “Raleigh left us in a lurch. What’s different?”
Beeman replied that Durham is in the same place, “or better than we were. We’re better than we were.”
Middleton was not convinced, and again stressed that the city should seek out another municipality for mutual aid until the Bull City’s 911 center is fully staffed.
“We need to look for another partner to help us,” Middleton said. “There’s no shame in that. Durham sends out help to its partners all the time.”
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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to email@example.com.