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Operator shortage means 911 calls await answers in Savannah

SAVANNAH — Some Savannah-area residents are experiencing delays when they call 911.

Chatham County Manager Lee Smith said the emergency call center has about 20 vacancies for operators. A full staff is about 100 operators.

“It’s a major problem, but we’re not at a crisis yet,” Smith said.

People say that when they call, sometimes they get repeated rings. Former Savannah City Council member Julian Miller said he made several calls trying to report a person with medical problems along a city street.

“It’s kind of a hopeless feeling when you’re waiting on an ambulance,” Miller said.

Miller said the first two calls he made went unanswered for a combined 28 rings. Miller then called a police officer he knew to report the problem. He got a returned call from an automated system and then the phone rang another 12 times.

The county has stepped up recruitment and has seen some more applicants. New hires are trained for at least nine months. Trainee pay starts at $13.52 an hour. Pay goes up as training is completed.

“Sometimes with private industry, we’re not able to compete at the same level. So it is very tough for local governments,” Smith said.

The remaining operators are working 12-hour shifts, but Smith said that's too long for a stressful job. Managers are seeking ways to shorten shifts.

“Those folks take a beating with folks not just trying to hear a call, but they’re trying to de-escalate situations," Smith said. "So it’s not just with medical protocols, they become mental health counselors. We deal with a couple thousand suicide attempts a year, which they de-escalate many times. That is very stressful.”

The county is also seeking ways to reduce the 40% of calls that don't deal with emergencies. Smith said the 911 center will refuse to take such non-emergency calls by the end of the year. Savannah operates a 311 number for non-emergency calls, and Smith said the county is looking at some kind of 24-hour service for non-emergency calls outside the city.

Chatham County took over the 911 center in 2018 after the Savannah and Chatham County police departments split. The call center serves the entire county except Tybee Island.

The county is buying new software to replace a 20-year-old system and is building a new office for the call center at Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport.

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