A firefighters’ union in Durham said Saturday night that the city’s 911 call center had no one present to answer the phones — an occurrence it says is not unusual as the city struggles to fill vacant positions.
Calls to the Durham Emergency Communications Center were routed to Raleigh’s center instead, Jimie Wright, the president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Durham Local 668, said in a news release Saturday.
In an interview Sunday, Wright called the staffing shortage a “major risk,” with “a huge impact for the public.” He added that they’ve seen it take as long as 10 minutes for a call to reach them when routed through Raleigh.
“You can imagine calling 911, and our units aren’t even on the road for another 10 minutes,” he said. “There simply is no excuse for it, and we’ve got to be better.”
In a statement issued Sunday, Randy Beeman, the director of Durham’s center, said the DECC was “staffed with dispatchers throughout the evening on Saturday,” but added that “calls were initially answered by call-takers in the Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications Center for seven hours due to unplanned absences.”
Beeman said the DECC used “alternate call-routing” to Raleigh between the hours of 8 p.m. and 3 a.m. Saturday — adding “this method of handling surge calls has been in place since December,” when the center faced staffing shortages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Wright said this method is meant for emergency situations that overwhelm the system with thousands of 911 calls — like the 2019 explosion caused by a gas leak in Durham.
“That doesn’t mean they’re overwhelmed because we don’t have the staffing,” he said.
As of April 30, Beeman said in the statement that 9% of Durham’s 911 calls were being answered by Raleigh’s center. He added that the DECC expected to stop routing calls through Raleigh within two months.
The DECC did not respond to a News & Observer request Sunday for current numbers on its staff, vacancies and average response times. Beeman did not respond to multiple N&O requests by phone and email for an interview.
The N&O has also requested data on DECC staff and response times from a spokesperson for the city of Durham.
When 30 seconds can be ‘critical’
Wright said when Raleigh handles 911 calls for Durham, crucial information can be lost in transition. Raleigh call-takers may take down the wrong address without realizing it, or fail to recognize immediately when calls are placed from apartment buildings, Wright said.
When responders arrive on scene, they could lack the apartment number needed to locate someone in need of medical attention, or could be in the wrong location altogether, he said.
“A delay of 30 seconds can be extremely critical,” Wright said.
Durham City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton said he felt “deeply, deeply concerned” after hearing about the DECC’s staffing shortage.
“This, of course, is the first line of defense for us as a city for any type of emergency. These are truly our first, first responders,” he said. “And the notion that we would not be acting not only optimally, but totally outsourcing the function, of course is an unacceptable state of affairs.”
He added that he’d previously been aware of the shortages, but had never heard of a 100% routing of calls to Raleigh.
Middleton said he expressed his concerns to City Manager Wanda Page.
“I’m confident that she will take necessary steps to make sure that we don’t see this type of situation again,” he said.
Wright said it’s “unacceptable” to see the problem persist for so long, despite awareness from leadership.
“We’ve been working since December with our city leadership, our council members, our mayor, our department directors — both fire and the dispatch director — on trying to find a way to alleviate this problem, improve it, and make the correction,” he said. “Unfortunately, in the business that we’re in, time is of the essence. For us not to have this fix now, in May, there’s just no excuse for it.”