Why We Leave 9-1-1

[Originally published in the May/June 2023 issue of PSC magazine.]

By Matt Berg

Most of us know that not many people can handle working in an emergency communications center (ECC). We have all heard numbers thrown around such as, “only 1% of the general public can do this job” and “less than 1 in 10 of those hired make it.” A quick Google search shows updated average dispatch tenure is now one to two years, down from three years previously listed. Frequently when discussing this topic we focus on keeping new hires, training them appropriately and acquiring the skills to function in a fast-paced environment that demands perfection. We invest time, money and emotions into these people only to have them fail in a variety of ways. Some may lack the technological savvy to operate increasingly complex technology; some may be unable to multitask and talk/type or listen/type or operate computer applications at the same time; many leave because the calls stress them out. What about the others though? What about those who can master the skillset needed but leave anyway? Why do they leave? I thought I’d ask them, and here is what they have to say.

Most of the ten former public safety telecommunicators surveyed via email and Facebook said they would like to return to 9-1-1 — or at least would consider it — whether it be part time, or only if certain stressors were mitigated or removed. However, several spoke with finality. The resignation in their tone suggesting that this portion of their life was over came through clearly. One responded with a firm negative, saying that he would never return to the profession. A second provided the single word “no” without qualifying information in response to whether they would return. One responded that he would only return with a leadership team in place that recognized 9-1-1 as an integral part of the public safety chain, a part of the team. Another said she misses the people she worked with and that like being an officer, 9-1-1 dispatch is not just what you do but becomes part of who you are as a person. Another said she would like to return part time but only after a leadership change at her former center.

Half of the survey respondents had two-to- seven years’ of experience, with the longer tenured respondents having service times ranging from 11 to 30 years. About half worked at one ECC; the other half worked at more than one. The burnout and mental health issues displayed, even among those without a longer tenure and experience, were concerning. Nearly all reported mental or physical health issues, or both. One said that while working she did not realize how bad things had become. Only after she changed jobs did she notice, and after hearing her husband repeatedly tell others what a difference he had seen in her demeanor and stress level. It seems that being in the job blinds some of us to how we project the stress that we deal with constantly.

The issues listed for why they left were no surprise. Staffing came out number one. Listed responses were: staffing issues (one respondent advised her agency had 30 tenured people lost in one year, not including new hires lost), hours of work required, work/ life balance, staffing, increased family time, shift work and seniority issues. Additionally, leadership was mentioned a few times, one respondent saying that the internal politics at his place of work sucked the joy from the job. Two others mentioned their ECCs’ leadership style. Pay was not mentioned frequently as a reason, although every person who responded (save two) are being paid more or the same as they were before leaving the job.

Most who left ended up making more money, and those who didn’t said the lower or equal pay was offset by other benefits that worked for them and wouldn’t have worked at their ECC job, such as a better commute or less stress. All of those surveyed said their physical and mental health was better after leaving 9-1-1 aside from one respondent who said personal problems had affected her health after leaving. The jobs taken after leaving 9-1-1 varied wildly, with no discernable pattern other than no one reported moving to shift work or to a job working longer days, with only one doing a similar job of dispatching for a hospital. All reported lower stress levels, with one saying their new job is more stressful but that support from coworkers and their boss made the stress manageable.

For at least the past two decades unstable staffing has been a problem for the industry, and the problem has worsened over the past few years. Jobs are no longer for life; they are until a better offer arrives. Many workers now use jobs for a one-to-two-year stint, then use that experience to springboard elsewhere at a higher pay rate. Rinse and repeat.

How do we combat this? First, we should ask some hard questions. What is the average American making per year? According to Indeed that number for 2020 was $49,764 per year.1 A search for the 2023 numbers provides the statement “According to information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual mean wage for a full-time worker in 2022 was $53,490 a year.”2 Ok, so what does the average public safety telecommunicator make? If you search the 2023 stats, you get an average of $19.52 an hour, or $40,620 a year.3 Why are we paying so much less per year than the average person makes for a job that is in demand, always short staffed, has a high turnover rate and takes months to train? Not to mention, it’s a job that consistently makes top ten most stressful job lists. Why are so many places still not paying telecommunicators a salary that makes them stay? Aren’t 9-1-1 professionals by and large worth the extra pay, especially as it pertains to retention? Retention is a significant documented issue, not just in the informal survey I completed for this article, but also as a topic that makes the rounds at every industry conference, both local and national.

How do we keep professionals? The answer is pay, benefits, schedules, perks, culture and job duties. We can’t change the traumatic calls, radio traffic, citizens’ or street responders’ attitudes, and how they speak to us. Someone must answer the call 24/7, right? Soft perks are nice, but we have all heard the jokes about pizza parties and how some view them. It’s time to look at a nationwide shift from treating public safety telecommunicators as secretaries to advanced communications professionals and shift the pay accordingly.

Matt Berg is a Senior Operations Supervisor, Virginia Beach ECCS-911.

  1. ”What Is the Average Salary in the USA?” Indeed.com https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/paysalary/ average-salary-usa#:~:text=What%20 is%20the%20average%20salary%20in%20the%20 United,median%20salary%20breaks%20down%20 to%20%24957%20per%20week.
  2. “What’s an Appropriate Salary Increase in 2023?” Indeed.com https://www.indeed.com/hire/c/info/ appropriate-salary-increase
  3. “How Much Does a 911 Operator Make in 2023?” (Plus FAQs). Indeed.com https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/pay-salary/how-much-do-911-operators-make