By Sarah Krueger, WRAL Durham reporter
DURHAM, N.C. — Records obtained by WRAL Investigates show staffing shortages at Durham’s 911 center have delayed emergency response times by as much as 13 minutes this year.
Firefighters routinely report issues with 911 dispatches to city officials, and WRAL obtained details of those reports late Monday following a public records request. More than 40 incidents have been recorded during the first four months of this year.
At least a third of the incidents were linked to staffing problems at the 911 center, which has forced the city to route almost 10 percent of its calls to the Raleigh-Wake County 911 center.
“When people call 911, they want help immediately,” said William Towner, a retired captain with the Durham Fire Department who now is the spokesman for Local 668 of the Professional Firefighters of Durham union.
Among the problems documented in the records:
A Raleigh firefighter called Durham counterparts on a cellphone to notify them of a Durham dispatch call before the Wake County 911 center could route a call back to Durham.
A call routed through Raleigh came back without an apartment number in the address, delaying a response by 10 minutes. By that time, the person had already been taken to a hospital.
Another response was delayed by 13 minutes because the wrong street was entered into the emergency dispatch system.
Firefighters were sent to a crash in which they were told there were no injuries, but they found someone unconscious when they arrived.
A medical call was reported that the person was conscious, but it turned out to be a drug overdose, and first responders needed to perform respiratory resuscitation on an unconscious person.
“That’s pretty valuable information to the crews arriving because you can prepare a little bit while you’re en route,” Towner said. “We have to know what we’re going into. An EMS scene may change to be violent or not violent, but you have to have the crews know.”
The documents show only what happened on the Durham end of the dispatch and don’t include how long information took to transfer over from Raleigh.
Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson noted that the 911 center handled nearly 86,000 calls during the period in which the 45 issues were noted and that not all of them were because of calls being routed through Raleigh.
“It is my professional opinion that you would see many similar concerns in any jurisdiction that had records similar to the ones we are providing,” Ferguson said in an email to WRAL. “All reports of incorrect or incomplete information in a 911 call answered by Durham or Raleigh are investigated, and if any errors are documented, corrective actions are taken.”
Almost a third of the positions at the local 911 center are vacant, and city officials are working to fill them as quickly as possible, he said.
“The city is 100% committed to achieving full staffing and is working earnestly to fill our vacancies,” he said. “We are also adding part-time staff to increase our short-term and long-term staffing levels.”
Towner said the staffing issue has become one of public safety.
“It might be a two-, three-, four-minute delay, which might be the difference of life or not,” he said. “The public demands us to be here for them, and we want to be there for them. But it just makes the job a whole lot harder.”