HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - The Horry County 911 Communications Center is experiencing a shortage and desperately needs help.
According to department officials, fewer staff has extended the time it takes dispatchers to answer calls.
Many of the dispatchers are working 12-hour-plus shifts, plus mandated overtime to make sure the phones lines and first responder radios are manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"Unfortunately, we've had a hard time finding people who are willing to do this job. We need people who are customer service oriented because people call us at the worst time of their lives," said Renee Hardwick, director of the Horry County 911 Communications Center.
The department currently has 10 positions open, according to Hardwick.
She told members of the Horry County Public Safety Committee during Monday's meeting the department is severely overstaffed.
"Sometimes you are here more hours in the week than you are at home," said Taylor Owens, who has worked in the department for three years. "Now since it's been mandated, we have to work. It's not like someone calling out. You have to come in until further notice. That's how we're going to be working because of the shortage."
The county's rapid growth and more cell phones are reasons Hardwick said their workload has increased.
"The standard is we answer 90 percent of our calls within 10 seconds" she said, "In this department, we've always enjoyed the ability to do that in five seconds, but what we've seen is a trend happening because we were increasing the number of people we service."
Dispatchers can take up to 300 calls during their 12-hour shift, and with fewer staff comes more job responsibilities for the already overworked employees.
"You could dispatch police or have a fire going on, and you're trying give out information, or you are trying to give out CPR instructions to someone on the emergency line," Owens said.
Owens and other dispatchers said answering non-emergency calls, pocket dials and 911 hang ups is also not helping with the shortage problem.
"If you don't answer the phone or if you answer the phone and we intercept the call, then we have to call that number back," said dispatcher Alan Washburn. "It takes time and resources away from actually emergency calls."
Washburn said if a person accidentally dials 911, they should stay on the line to talk to a dispatcher and let them know it was a mistake and everything is OK. He added it is also important to lock all phones.
Often times, if someone does not answer when a dispatcher tries to call back, an officer will be sent to the location. Hardwick said the department is working on a plan to educate the public on what is considered a 911 emergency and what is not.
The starting salary for a dispatcher position is $31,000, but she said salary is not the reason they continue to lose employees. It is the stress that comes with the responsibility to serve others.
"It's stressful," Owens said. "They say police and EMS are the first responders, but technically, we hear that first initial reaction."
Hardwick said the department is starting to recruit from Coastal Carolina University and Horry Georgetown Technical College to find qualified employees to fill the positions.