MORGAN COUNTY, Ala. – During the pandemic, leaders with Morgan County 911 tell News 19 they did not face the same staffing issues so many other places did. The past couple of months, however, have been a different story.
“A year ago or even two years ago, when we would post an opening that we had, we would get 30, 40, 50 applicants. Lately, when we’ve been posting openings, we’ve maybe been getting 10,” Morgan County 911 Director Jeanie Pharis said.
Pharis said it takes months to get new dispatchers trained, and during cycles of many vacancies at one time like what they’re experiencing now, “It takes us a lot longer to recover from that.” Pharis said.
She said quick turnovers can be a problem because of long hours, noncompetitive wages and unfortunate tragedies some dispatchers hear firsthand.
“So you’re the last person who talked to them while they were still alive, knowing what happened to them, and when you’re done with that call, you hang up and you have to take another call,” she said. “Its a constant emotional roller coaster when you’re dealing with that for 12 hours a day.”
Until the spots can be filled, dispatchers are working overtime in addition to their mandatory overtime. Admin staff are being pulled to operations and even Pharis is stepping in to give dispatchers a hand.
“Consistent time off is very critical to them to be able recover and have that downtime because the longer they’re working, the more they’re working, you’re just tired and when you’re tired that’s when mistakes happen, and that’s in any field,” she said.
Pharis said the current problem is bigger than just this dispatch center.
“To get new people in with the current state of the economy, all agencies are having a tough time getting applicants in, and getting qualified applicants in,” she said. “It’s not something that’s exclusive to Morgan County, this is something that is across the country.”
She said she doesn’t fault anyone for leaving in pursuit of a different lifestyle, but they’re doing all they can now, including offering access to mental health offerings to help those dispatchers who are facing tough calls every day.
With the emotional toll the career can take on a person, Pharis hopes to see legislation in the state soon that would give dispatchers and other 911 workers an increase in access to more mental health support services similar to that of first responders.