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Understaffed 911 Centers Struggle Amid Increasing Job Demands

For decades, 911 call takers have had three main options: send emergency medical responders, firefighters or police. A fourth option is becoming increasingly common: a mental health professional who responds to some calls instead of the police. A study last month found that 44 of the largest U.S. 50 cities now have an alternative response program, many of which don't involve police at all, NPR reports. As more cities deploy these new responders, the decision of when to use them usually rests with already stressed 911 workers. "Nationally, I'd say that right now it's not a great time in the 911 call-taking system. Some might say it's in crisis itself," says Jessica Gillooly, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Suffolk University. "Workers are overstressed, they're understaffed and they're underpaid." In a survey of 911 professionals last year, more than 80 percent of respondents said their facility was understaffed. Almost the same amount said they regularly deal with burnout and anxiety.

How 911 call takers –who talk to the public – and dispatchers – who talk to responders – make decisions in part comes down to training. Training varies widely at the approximately 6,000 call centers. In Denver, the 911 training academy lasts three months, with an additional three months answering calls alongside a trainer. At a recent training, new hires were taught about the STAR program, which the city rolled out in 2020 as an alternative to police. Every day, eight vans rove the city, each with an emergency medical responder and a mental health clinician on board. Denver 911 says the majority of the calls it receives are not appropriate for mental health responders alone. Nearly four years after it was launched, the STAR program has responded to just one percent of the city's 911 calls. "There are still times where a call that would be perfect for STAR gets a police response instead, or a call that is not appropriate for STAR gets dispatched to one of the vans," Denver 911 Director Andrew Dameron says, "We are working really, really hard so that we are constantly improving," He says training and making sure employees are well-supported will help improve the call process.


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