I-TEAM: Aiken County 911’s problems just a sample of nationwide 911 issues

Published: Jul. 10, 2020 at 1:30 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Earlier this week, we showed you how mistakes inside Aiken 911 dispatch center is costing critical minutes to save lives. You heard from devastated families and Aiken County Sheriff Michael Hunt himself.

But national experts say this is not a problem strictly limited to just Aiken -- it’s a problem being seen across the country.

911 is a local entity, so the fix must start at the local level. Our investigation found burnout, high stress, and low pay are leading to high turnover rates everywhere. However, locally, Aiken county’s dispatch turnover is the worst.

Latrell Wingard lost her son, 3-year-old son Jayshaun Edwards, to a house fire in April. Her call to 911 is a harrowing call for help no mother wants to relive.

Our I-Team investigation found a mistake by the Aiken County dispatcher cost 20 life-saving minutes. Jayshaun died inside.

The story was similar for Frank and Brenda Roberts. They lost the mother they knew after a heart attack turned into a brain injury last year. They blame critical life-saving minutes were lost to the Aiken County dispatcher coding the call incorrectly and not sending the proper manpower to save Barbara Roberts.

“If there had been adequate help dispatched, where the paramedic would have had other hands, someone would have had to do CPR, someone would need to ventilate her so she’s getting oxygen to her brain,” Brenda said.

Barbara Roberts now lives in a nursing home receiving full-time care. Our investigation found in Aiken County, most dispatchers are new to the job. Sheriff Hunt hired 19 new dispatchers since January of last year. Eight of the 19 have left, averaging only 3 1/2 months on the job. In all, the I-Team found a total of 24 dispatchers left the county since January 2018. Compare that to Columbia County which lost nine dispatchers last year total.

NENA, or the National Emergency Number Association, says burnout is a problem nationwide.

“Each year, there is about 18,000 turnovers in 911,” Brian Fontes, NENA’s CEO, said. “Another aspect of this is just the stress of the job. Just a lot of stress.”

Fontes’ coworker, April Heinze, is their operations director and a former 911 dispatcher herself.

“A lot of times when they are hired in, often times they are paid same type of wage someone else in a lot less stressful environment is paid,” Heinze said.

The nationwide median salary for a 911 dispatcher is $41,910. The I-Team found that is much higher than what our local agencies pay on both sides of the river.

In Georgia, Columbia County dispatchers make around $33,000. In Richmond County, the number is $32,389.

The state of South Carolina average is $33,000 for 911 dispatchers. Aiken County tells us their pay starts below that at $32,500.

Sheriff Hunt says for Aiken County dispatchers, that wage reflects a 10 percent pay raise given to dispatchers last year.

“Pay in public safety jobs is just low,” Hunt said. “Now we made great progress.”

Hunt says he has not pushed for more positions, though.

“It’s a stressful job,” Hunt said. “We don’t have them standing in line wanting to be a dispatcher.”

Aiken County has seen a 7 percent population increase in a decade, but no new dispatch positions have been added to the budget in the last five years.

“If you look at the amount of calls we get, those folks do a good job,” Hunt said. “They’re human, and we are going to make a mistake or two.”

911 dispatch is a local entity, meaning every county or city can run their emergency dispatch differently.

Aiken County requires dispatchers to be e911 certified, but the I-Team found only one dispatcher currently certified.

Aiken also doesn’t use an emergency medical dispatch system or EMD. The system guides EMD certified dispatchers through a series of questions that help them recognize certain medical conditions to properly dispatch the call. It’s considered the industry standard. Richmond County uses it and requires its dispatchers to hold EMD certifications.

So why doesn’t Aiken County have any dispatchers with the certification?

“It’s not that we don’t want to,” Hunt said. “We like to. I think we would like to push for it in the future, but we are simply trying to get applicants we feel our qualified in here.”

It also comes down to funding to train new dispatchers.

“Well, we have come a long ways in that line item also,” Hunt said.

NENA says on top of the low pay, training differences, and the stress of talking to people on the worst days of their lives, you can see where the mental health load gets overwhelming.

“The minute you answer that phone, you have somebody’s life in your hands,” Fontes said.

“Mental health is one of the biggest reasons we are losing people. It’s not that they don’t like the job, it’s because they can’t process what they are being asked to do.”

To add to the stress and burnout, many dispatchers lack the mental health resources to help them work through traumatic calls.

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