Answering the Call

Berkeley County Council approves additional positions for County 911 Call Center

The Berkeley County Government’s 911 call center is understaffed, operating below state standards, and has been for 12 consecutive years. That was the report of Berkeley County 911 director Sam Gaither to Berkeley County Council at the body’s January 23 meeting, where Gaither requested funding for five additional positions to staff the center.

Gaither, in the end, got what he’d requested, by a close Council vote of 4-3, but not before a healthy debate ensued. Several members of Council argued that to not staff the center presents the county with a liability issue. Others noted that the Berkeley County Government is only months away from budget time and that while they agreed there was a need, the time was not right.

Gaither reported to Council that though 24 of the 27 positions on the call center staff are on the call center floor handling calls and dispatching calls for service, the center is still only able to field approximately 60 percent of 911 calls within 10 seconds. That figure means Berkeley County is falling far short of the state standard for such centers which dictates that they answer 80 percent of the calls within 10 seconds.

Gaither further argued that the model of operation for the call center also needs to be modified. The call center is currently a “vertical center,” in which the same person who takes a call could be handling a police dispatch call simultaneously. Gaither called that model “an officer safety issue for our responders out in the field,” and suggested the facility change to a horizontal model in which different people handle the call and dispatching tasks.

“In that scenario, the person managing a chase with the Sheriff’s Office could simultaneously be giving CPR instructions to someone in full (cardiac) arrest who has never done CPR before,” said Gaither. “That is a threat to our citizens who are calling 911, and officers and responders in the field.”

Gaither’s request was for five additional positions – four telecommunicators (adding two to each 12-hour shift) to work the floor, answer calls, and dispatch EMS, fire, and police first responders, and one administrative specialist. The administrative specialist would assist his current operation supervisor, who Gaither asserted spends only 30 percent of her time managing the call center, with 70 percent of her time devoted to handling FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests.

The total impact on the next year’s budget, stated Gaither, was $156,000, with the first quarter of the work, staff training time, to be covered by the state’s 911 fund.

Daniel Island resident and Berkeley County Councilman Josh Whitley voiced his concerns with approving the positions now. Whitley, who serves as the chairman of the Berkeley County Council Finance Committee, fell firmly in the camp of those who recognized the need for improvement at the call center but felt the request should be heard during the body’s normal budgetary process, beginning in a couple of months.

“This is something that can’t wait three months until we address the rest of the budget?” he asked. “My concern is we need more EMS trucks, we need more (Sheriff’s) deputies… we have lots and lots of needs and I would like all of it to be on the table. I think it makes sense from a budgetary standpoint to address it in the context of our normal budget.”

Gaither’s response was frank.

“I would ask for additional people that we would talk about for the regular budget cycle as well,” he said, before reporting that the center now handles an additional 20,000 call for service than a decade ago, and with no staff increase to accompany it.

During the last fiscal year, the center answered over 105,000 911 calls, with approximately 66,000 of them being answered within the state-mandated 10-second timeframe, noted Gaither.

“I’m not going to ask for something if we don’t need it,” he continued. “If we’re meeting the state requirement for answering 80 percent of 911 calls within 10 seconds, then there’s no reason to ask for more people. Although I’d like to get ahead of that, we need to be able to spend our money wisely, because the taxpayers are paying that money in. We will need more than my building currently can hold to meet what our citizens require and to meet state law, but I can only ask for what my building can hold right now.”

“The situation with response time existed prior to the last budgetary cycle,” responded Whitley. “I would have expected it would have been this administration’s position that this would have been a priority last budget cycle, as it’s now mid-budget. I don’t oppose the new personnel. I oppose doing it outside the budgetary process, because this isn’t a new problem. It existed before the last budgetary cycle.”

“I’m really concerned with respect to liability and risk with any citizen in Berkeley County who is subjected to the possibility of loss of life or limb as a result of the decisions we make here on County Council,” stated Councilman Steve Davis. “I bear some responsibility for this. I’ve been on County Council since 2005. There are a few of us on County Council who share some responsibility for us operating in this manner and I commend you for putting (us) on notice. We live in a society where everybody wants to sue everybody, but the bottom line is if we can take corrective action short of $160,000 then I urge Council we do so.”

In the end, Council voted 4-3 to approve the immediate funding and staffing of the Berkeley 911 center, with Councilmen Kevin Cox and Jack Schurlknight joining Whitley in dissent. The vote was subsequently passed in the full Council meeting and since the meeting, Berkeley County’s Human Resources Department has posted these new positions as job openings. Interested and qualified individuals can apply for the positions by visiting the Berkeley County website at www.berkeleycountysc.gov/drupal/humanresources/jobs.

 

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