9-1-1 please hold; Why Hampton Roads cities struggle hiring dispatchers

CHESAPEAKE, Va.  - In an emergency, seconds count. When your life is on the line and you call 9-1-1 for help you don't expect to hear a recording.

On March 8 that response was the reality of a third of callers between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. when calling Chesapeake dispatch.

This is how the recording goes, "Please remain on the line, all Chesapeake 9-1-1 dispatchers are currently busy. Do not hang up as your call will be taken in the order it was received. If you hang up and call back it may take longer for your call to be answered."

Out of 103 calls made during the hour on March 8, 31 of them were answered by this recording.

From the 9-1-1 tapes it was obvious some callers were frustrated and upset about being put on hold. They were heard saying "Are ya'll going to answer the phone?" and "That's not a good sign. I'm on hold for 9-1-1."

According to officials with Chesapeake Police, right now the department is short 15 dispatchers. The large number of vacancies is one of the reasons callers are put on hold.

"A dispatcher can only answer one call at a time and they have to address that callers needs," explained Lt. Richard Huttenbrauck with Chesapeake.

Meaning there are simply not enough people in the call center to take these emergency calls.

"Having fewer people in the room is even an extra pressure added on so it can be really really difficult," explained Doreal Quarles, a dispatcher for the last eight-years. "It's a need that has to be fulfilled and we all have to pitch in."

The city is taking action to fill the open positions, but finding the right person for the job isn't an easy task.

"It's not just that we want people here, we do, we need employees," said Lt. Huttenbrauck . "We certainly need help with the staffing but we need the right people here."

According to Lt. Huttenbrauck, 50-percent of applicants typically drop out after going through the first stage of becoming a dispatcher, a test of their ability to multitask.

"It takes a special person with a heart for service and the ability to be compassionate and sympathetic and at the same time gather the information that we need rapidly and accurately," explained Captain Mark Heckler.

After taking the test, there is still between nine and 12 months of training. While the training can be long and at times difficult, it can be the difference between life and death.

"They just don't know what they are going to get when they pick up that 9-1-1 call and they have to remain composed and prepared and knowledgeable," said Captain Heckler.

Chesapeake dispatchers tell News 3 that while their jobs require immense training and is difficult at times, they are proud of the work they do.

"I never ever thought in a million years thought that I would be the person on the other end when someone calls 9-1-1, said Quarles. "Now after having done it for eight years I am proud to be that person on the other line."

And hope that others will consider applying for a rewarding career in Chesapeake.

“It really is rewarding,” said Quarles. “It’s honestly the most rewarding work. I’ve done a lot of different jobs in my life. This one is by far the most rewards, it’s nice to be able to provide a public service and help people during their time of need.”

The City of Chesapeake is hoping to attract qualified dispatcher candidates with new technology and a new facility. A new center is scheduled to open in 2018, will have top of line technology in addition to more space for dedicated dispatchers.

Another way residents can help cut down on being put on hold for 9-1-1 is by dialing Chesapeake non-emergency numbers when they are facing an important but non-life-threatening event. Those numbers are 382-6161 to reach fire, police and medical service which are not emergencies and  382-CITY for non-emergency services.

Chesapeake dispatch is not currently accepting applications because they are preparing a new class of recruits for their academy. Officials say within 10 weeks they will begin accepting applications again. For more information about becoming a dispatcher click here.