Short-staffed: Emergency Communications Center faces its own emergency

Emergency Communications Center supervisor Taylor Ashley worked 922 hours of overtime
last year. Photo by Sanjay Suchak Emergency Communications Center supervisor Taylor Ashley worked 922 hours of overtime last year. Photo by Sanjay Suchak

The center that handles all of the city, county, and university’s 911 calls is severely understaffed, and now it’s calling for help.

“At this point, it’s basically an emergency,” says Taylor Ashley, a supervisor at the Emergency Communications Center. “It’s difficult because we have almost no time off work…If you’re not on call, then you’re probably working overtime.”

Last year, Ashley says he racked up 922 hours of overtime, and more recently he’s worked approximately 15 days straight. Some of his colleagues have put in more than 20.

On the call center floor, the lights are low, and the six people on duty are illuminated only by multi-colored string lights and the five computer screens at each of their work stations. The sounds pouring from their radios range from voices to sirens.

The staff wants to have a minimum of seven people answering 911 calls during each shift, so today, another person working overtime will soon come in to meet that goal. There’s also one new employee training on this day, part of the ECC’s campaign to hire at least nine more employees.

But that’s also part of the problem, explains Ashley. Because he or other staff members are asked to train the new hires, they either have to abandon their work stations or come in on their day off.

In response, Executive Director Barry Neulen plans to hire an independent contractor, Homeland Security Solutions, Inc., to train new workers—at a cost of $180,000. The move raised questions at a January 8 board meeting, in which other board members, including Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney, questioned Neulen’s decision to hire people he knew from his time in the Marine Corps without investigating other groups that could potentially do it for less. She also questioned why they wouldn’t keep the training in-house.

Neulen says he did get specs on a few other contracts, but that his experience with Homeland Security Solutions meant he could trust them to do a good job.

“I didn’t have the time or the inclination to cast a wide net because I knew what this company was capable of doing,” he says. “They came in and met my folks, and my folks were impressed by what they were saying.”

Emphasizing the need to hire someone quickly, he adds, “I spent my entire year’s budget in six months for overtime. That’s how bad it is.”

The majority of board members eventually agreed to the hire. And Ashley says employees are “excited” for the contractors to come in and take some of the weight off their shoulders. Especially because low morale is one reason they’re in that situation, he adds.

“We were going to keep losing more good people if something didn’t happen, and bringing in new people that we’ve hired will help fix that,” says Ashley.

The ECC is accepting applications, and recent advertising efforts have led about 100 people to apply.

“We really want people to know that this is a good place to work, but also know that this isn’t a job for everybody,” says Ashley, who’s seen multiple people throw in the towel during their training. The ideal candidate will be able to “change gears” and “go with the flow,” he adds. One call may be a complaint about a barking dog, “and the very next phone call you take is a mother who found her child not breathing,” he says. But it’s a great job for people who want to serve their community.

“We like to consider ourselves the first first responder,” he says. “We are that lifeline between the person having the emergency and the responder. Without us, I don’t know how else you’d get help.”

Corrected January 29 at 1:22pm. The original version said Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney eventually agreed to the hiring of Homeland Security Solutions, which she did not.