For the last year, the 911 dispatcher center for the city of Bridgeton, Mo., covered the needs of its 11,000 residents with fewer than half of the dispatchers it needed. As of this month, the center no longer exists. Instead, officials in the suburb 18 miles outside of St. Louis outsourced 911 dispatch to St. Louis County under a three-year agreement. Rather than operate a center at half capacity, Bridgeton will pay the county $155,000 a year for the call services, PBS News Hour reports. Bridgeton is one of many communities across the U.S. that are experiencing a 911 dispatcher shortage. Some agencies cite pay, the toll on dispatchers’ mental health and long hours, while others attribute the shortage to a staffing struggle across many industries in recent months. With around 240 million calls made to 911 in the U.S. each year, agencies are feeling the pressure to find a solution. April Heinze of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) says the issue has to be addressed both to ensure people are getting the emergency services they need and to make sure agencies nationwide are able to retain and recruit enough people to provide those services at all.
Ideally, there should be at least two dispatchers on each shift at call centers. “We were only running one dispatch at night, the midnight shift and that’s not a very good thing to do,” Bridgeton Mayor Tim Briggs said. Every second matters during an emergency, said Heinze, and not having enough people to answer calls means those seconds waiting add up quickly. NENA standards say that of all 911 calls that are answered, 95 percent should be answered within 20 seconds.” When there aren’t enough people on staff, reaching that threshold is difficult. The struggle to find employees is being felt by agencies across Missouri. St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones said last year that the current system was in "dire need of an overhaul" and that some callers were experiencing holds that lasted "several minutes." In Bridgeton, Briggs said it was the lack of staffing at the city’s dispatch center that led to it closing. He said the department needed at least 10 dispatchers and some part-timers. The city ended up budgeting for only eight positions and even then they were only able to hire five. The city “couldn’t find the personnel to get it done,” Briggs said.