Chesco adds more 911 dispatchers to its ranks as it faces critical staffing shortage

An emergency call center operator.

An emergency call center operator. (MoiraM/BigStock)

Chester County announced the addition of six new 911 dispatchers to its ranks at Wednesday’s Board of Commissioners meeting as it seeks to address a massive staffing crisis impacting the county Department of Emergency Services.

The department has been hemorrhaging staff for years.

With 29 full and part-time vacancies as of Tuesday, the county agency was well above the 18 full and part-time vacancies that it had at the end of 2019.

With the addition of the recently hired telecommunicators and one worker who is leaving the call center, Chesco’s still has 24 empty slots. Despite the lack of workers, Bobby Kagel, the county administrator, said that the 911 call center is “operating normally.”

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“It’s taking 911 calls. It’s dispatching police, fire, and emergency medical service units. It’s getting emergency responders to people that need the help. So in that sense, it is and it has been continuing to do those vital core functions of a normal 911 center,” Kagel said.

He emphasized that the shortage has not affected public safety. Kagel said that it had “zero impact” on the quality of service. However, he didn’t dismiss the problem outright.

“Are they short-staffed? Absolutely. Is that a problem? Across the region and across the country? Absolutely. Does it put an added level of stress on the employees that we are concerned about? Absolutely,” Kagel said.

When asked how and why the county is in this situation, Kagel said that it is hard to pinpoint it to a single issue.

But, he did say that it could be a symptom of the hard work that is required for the job.

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Prior to becoming the county administrator, he started as a quality analyst in the county Department of Emergency Services about 20 years ago. He even took the 911 call taker class.

“I worked on the 911 floor and answered 911 calls. So, I’ve been there. I’ve done the job. I know how stressful it is. On a good day and with full staffing, it is a stressful job and it’s long hours. And it’s hard work … it’s taxing on families, it’s taxing on individuals. And I think when you take those factors and you combine it with the economic conditions that we are looking at today, I think it’s a recipe for issues,” Kagel said.

Chester County EMS Council president Chaz Brogan has been keeping a close eye on the situation, but so far, he added that there has been no direct impact to emergency medical services in the region.

“But I will say, the Department of Emergency Services leadership has been very transparent with us and answered our questions, and we’re aware of the concerns,” Brogan said.

What continues to be a challenge, however, is the impact of the closures of Jennersville and Brandywine hospitals.

“The concerns that we forecasted in our white paper are exactly what we’re seeing. The western and southern areas, those ambulances, do have to transport further now. And well, that strips the resources from those areas. So that’s a concern, but I will say that we’re doing a very good job in mitigating it,” Brogan said.

From shifting units around to more frequent communication, EMS providers are adapting — and this starts with the 911 center.

“They’re still there for us,” Brogan said.

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