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Answering the call for help: Vermont 911 call centers short-staffed

Published: Sep. 27, 2021 at 6:16 PM EDT
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WILLISTON, Vt. (WCAX) - State leaders are concerned about staffing shortages at Vermont’s 911 call centers and making sure help is there when you need it.

In Vermont when you dial 911, your call is intercepted at one of six public safety answering points called PSAPs.

The ones in Williston and Westminster are operated by state police.

The PSAPs answer the 911 call and then dispatch local emergency crews.

The goal is to answer 90% of the calls that arrive at a PSAP. If calls go unanswered, they are automatically and seamlessly transferred to another PSAP within seconds.

“As you can imagine, these are not just ‘I’m going to pick up the phone, dispatch it and hang up the phone.’ These are time-consuming calls,” said Capt. Lance Burnham of the Vermont Department of Public Safety in a recent meeting of the Enhanced 911 Board.

Williston and Westminster normally handle 70% of the statewide call volume, but they’re taking fewer calls. That’s due to staffing shortages caused by unfilled positions, people on medical leave and active duty deployment.

“We dispatch to 110 agencies across the state. So at times, we have six dispatchers on at one time,” Burnham said.

But now with staffing shortages, more of those calls are transferred to smaller regional PSAPs.

Right now, state leaders say the system is not at a crisis point. Calls are still getting answered in 10 seconds or less. But leaders are concerned about what could happen if the shortages continue.

“They may not be able to notify their responders or interact with their responders because they’re busy with a 911 caller,” said Barbara Neal, the executive director of the E911 Board. Neal adds that staffing shortages at 911 centers are not a problem unique to Vermont - other states are feeling the squeeze as well.

Five years ago, lawmakers and the Shumlin administration closed PSAP centers in Derby and Rutland.

State police say this gave call-takers more responsibilities dispatching and fielding 911 calls. Staffers also talk people through crisis situations, such as giving CPR instructions.

E911 board staff say the fix lies in two strategies: reassigning training coordinators to take on 911 calls during peak hours, and long term, looking into ways to get more people into the public safety career.

“We just have to continue to try to find people who are interested in making this a career. I don’t know how we’re going to do that but we have to keep trying,” Lamoille County Sheriff Roger Marcoux said.

Police say that that will mean bringing the Criminal Justice Council, police and lawmakers to the table.

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