‘This ain’t for the weak or the weary’

Every 911 dispatcher has a story to tell about a call that’s forever etched into their memory.

For Sabrina Woodall, a Cobb County emergency communications officer, it was a personal call she handled in 2011.

Her grandfather’s caretaker dialed 911 to report that he’d suffered a pulmonary embolism. Woodall was about to leave for her lunch break, but just happened to answer.

She guided the caretaker through CPR protocols until paramedics arrived. She then ran out of the call center and a supervisor rushed Woodall to her grandpa’s home.

Paramedics kept trying to resuscitate him, but he later died.

“I was a trainer, and I always told my trainees the calls aren’t personal, they don’t affect you,” she said. “Yes, you’re empathetic, but at the end of the day that was their fight. That was their car accident. It didn’t affect me personally. Well, then it did.”

Each day, a legion of dispatchers like Woodall man the radios at 911 communications centers across metro Atlanta and expose themselves to a constant barrage of interactions that can be both tragic and devastating. They answer calls from people in crisis and dispatch aid, serving as a bridge of intervention.

At five of metro Atlanta’s busiest 911 centers — Atlanta, plus the counties of Cobb, Gwinnett, Fulton and DeKalb — dispatchers handle a combined 4 million calls a year, according to statistics provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The AJC reviewed records and interviewed call takers at those five centers and found that the attrition rate for dispatchers spiked last year, largely due to the pandemic, which only intensified staffing shortages. As a result, city officials have begun to offer incentives and bonuses ― whatever it takes to attract and retain good employees.

“Being in a big city, it’s a lot of responsibility,” longtime Atlanta 911 dispatcher Linda Gray said. “This ain’t for the weak or the weary.”

Struggles with recruiting, retaining

The turnover rate at metro Atlanta 911 centers rose as high as 40% in 2021 in some cases. Officials said part of the increase is because workers had to be quarantined due to COVID-19 protocols and many call centers saw a decline in the number of applications they typically receive.

In Gwinnett, 44 dispatcher positions were vacant at the end of January, according to a spokesperson.

At least 30 Atlanta dispatchers resigned in 2021, and the city is now working to add 38 positions, a spokesperson told the AJC last month.

Cobb County, the third-largest 911 operation in the state, was 24 dispatchers short of being fully staffed when its call center hit critically low staffing levels in late 2021, according to officials.

Staffing shortages are a nationwide issue, according to directors of local agencies who spoke to the AJC. They result in an increase in overtime, sick leave and stress for call takers who have to work longer hours to pick up the slack.

“We have a lot of great employees. But I think when you’re doing those 16-hour days because somebody else called out, if that continues to become a trend, that’s how a lot of the great employees get burned out,” Fulton County dispatcher Jamilla Bigham said.

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Staffing is not the only issue. Pay has also long been a hurdle in retaining 911 employees long term.

Between the five agencies contacted by the AJC, the starting pay for a dispatcher is about $38,000, which amounts to an $18.27 hourly wage. An Amazon sortation center in Jefferson has been hiring warehouse workers for up to $17.50 per hour with sign-on bonuses as high as $3,000.

Cobb leaders approved $2,500 annual “stay incentives” in December to retain dispatchers and began offering new employees $1,500 and $2,000 signing bonuses. In Fulton, the county offered new hires sign-on bonuses as high as $3,000 and retention bonuses of $4,000. Gwinnett’s communications officers were included in the 8% pay raises county officials approved for public safety personnel in October.

Cobb County 911 director Melissa Alterio wants to close the pay gap so dispatchers are treated more in line with their counterparts in public safety.

“We’re still sort of treated as if we’re clerical, and that’s a problem nationwide,” she said. “We’re not glorified operators anymore.”

On the front lines

Being a 911 professional is an inherently pressure-packed job. Dispatchers are typically the first point of engagement for people in life-or-death situations.

Studies have shown the indirect trauma call takers are subjected to from listening to tragedy can have a lasting impact. Dr. Michelle Lilly, a clinical psychology professor at Northern Illinois University, found that between 18% to 24% of 911 dispatchers show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s on par with the rate of PTSD for police officers.

LaShawn Woods has been a dispatcher in Atlanta for the past 10 years. She said she enjoys the excitement of the job and said she gets fulfillment from helping people.

“Hearing that one call shoot out all across the room and once you send it, it disperses to whomever is needed,” she said. “It’s almost magical.”

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Woods, however, found herself caught in the middle of a political battle when Rayshard Brooks was shot by an Atlanta police officer in June 2020. The city was roiling from anti-police protests, and nearly 200 Atlanta officers staged a “blue flu” protest in response.

Protesters barricaded streets, blocked traffic and torched the Wendy’s in southwest Atlanta where Brooks was killed in the days after his death. Woods remembers calling for help on the radio, but no officers responded.

“That, for me, put us on the very front line,” she said. “I’m raising the sergeant, I’m raising lieutenants. Nobody answered. That not only was scary, it just made it so real for me.”

‘You want to silence the heartbreak’

Cobb is one of the few 911 agencies in the state that has a full peer-support program for communication specialists, Alterio said. It’s clear the mental wellness of telecommunicators is becoming more of an industrywide concern.

“It’s changing because there’s a lot of studies out there that recognize that 911 telecommunicators experience PTSD just as much as law enforcement or military personnel,” Alterio said.

Alterio, for instance, said she will never forget one call early in her career when she had to listen to a woman die in a house fire.

“Hearing the fire crackling around her,” she recalled, “it was terrible.”

Gray said the quiet room at communications centers is an effective, temporary getaway location in the midst of calls, but it’s important for dispatchers to have time away from work to completely decompress.

“You want to silence the phone ringing, you want to silence the crying, you want to silence the heartbreak on the other end,” she said. “You have to find a way to silence the noise to get back to you.”

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Woodall was 16 weeks pregnant with triplets when her grandfather died that day in 2011. She’s since handled hundreds of serious calls.

She helped dispatch aid to Pinetree Country Club on July 3 after three men were shot and killed at the upscale Kennesaw golf course. She handled calls about an armed jewelry store robbery May 6 that shut down Town Center mall.

During those stressful moments, Woodall relies on the strong bonds she’s developed with co-workers, working long hours together in the trenches.

“You really just have to love it,” Woodall said. “You have a family up there (in the call center) and you all just work together and get through the good times and bad times.”