PACIFIC NORTHWEST - We rely on 911 to provide help and be there at all times, but over the years that's become a challenge.
Especially, as the nation continues to see a shortage of 911 call takers. Several call centers in Central Washington say they have been experiencing this for years.
"911, what is the address of your emergency?"
When you call 911 there is always someone on the other end of the line, no matter the call, help is always provided. Even with call centers being short staffed.
"Habitually there's always been a storage," said Brad Coughenour, SunComm 911 Communications director.
Coughenour says this is nothing new to him.
"I also came from Coeur D'Alene near Spokane and we were on constant shortage there, and I know for a factor they're in a shortage as we speak, so it's nationwide."
SECOMM manager and Richland police captain Mike Cobb agrees.
"Honestly I've been in one capacity or another up at Benton County Emergency Services for several different phases during my career, and it's always been an issue," said Cobb.
And, it's the same thing in Kittitas.
"I've been doing this for 33 years, on the west side it was happening were they were consolidating dispatch centers in the Seattle area. I've been over here for 22 years, and it's basically, probably the last 10 years," said Rich Elliot, Deputy Fire Chief, Kittitas Valley Fire and Rescue.
Overall Yakima is down six call takers,Benton County is down eight and Kittitas is down four, but those numbers have been lower.
"Yeah we've been down 15 telecommunicators at one point," said Cobb.
"Five years ago we were down what 17, 18," said Coughenour.
"It's a lot better than it was in May and June, it was really a struggle back them," said Darlene Mainwaring, KITTCOM director.
In regards to what could of started the shortage, none of the directors knew.
"It's kinda as our society shifts a little bit it's tough to get people to work shift work and adverse conditions in high stress occupations," said Cobb.
He adds, "No one calls 911 when things are going too well. They're calling because they are having some type crisis in their life, and they want to report either a fire, a medical emergency, or a criminal event, and it takes a very special kind of person to listen to that information and interpret it, and pass it on to the units in the field."
As the shortage continues it's up to existing call takers to keep the place running.
"There are practically a little over a quarter million people in Yakima County. All 911 calls are filtered through our comms centers," said Cameron Haubrich, SunComm dispactcher.
Haubrich also says it can get stressful.
"It's a very fast paced environment, which again is something that I can guarantee everyone here in this room enjoys. However, when we are so short staffed that fast paced environment becomes even more chaotic than it is on a regular daily basis, and you know we try and wear multiple hats simultaneously while doing multiple jobs. Answering phones, answering the radios, sending out units; and when we are doing that at minimum it's very hard to keep up even for the bestest batch or the best call taker. It's nearly impossible to give the best service that we can while we're doing it at minimum staffing, and it's not in the best interest of the community."
Haubrich continues to explain some of the changes him and his co-workers have had to get used to.
"Due to the staffing shortage a lot of us on our days off anytime someone calls in sick or has an emergency, and isn't able to come in for whatever reason we're getting called from home because we are at minimum."
Coughenour says they've had to make adjustments because 911 never sleeps.
"There is no choice for us we have to answer that call, there is no saying, 'Hey our window is closed at this time we have to many calls.' We don't have that opportunity."
Cobb says it's their job to keep everything running smoothly.
"Our goal is that the citizens in our county both Benton and Franklin counties as well as the officers and firefighters in the field aren't impacted by our staffing levels."
Both Cobb and Coughenour say what truly keeps the system functioning is their employees and dispatchers like Haubrich.
"We work 12 hour shifts, so we work long days when we are here...We're all here to help people I mean that's that's what we do, that's what we enjoy, so the fact that you know the calls need to be answered is what kinda keeps up coming back," said Haubrich.
However, Haubrich admits the long hours and stress can add up.
"So when we are so short staffed the overflow and call volume then does carry over to dispatches who typically fulfill a different role, but obviously our number one priority is answering those calls to 911, so we have to end up pulling resources from other departments per say to make sure we get those calls answered."
Mainwaring says over at KITTCOM they've managed thanks to some additional help.
"We have our neighboring agency helping us, and we also have our user agencies assisting, so that's made a big difference."
Part of the help comes from Kittitas Valley Fire and Rescue.
"We've actually got firefighter EMS personal to sit in dispatch and take calls," said Elliot.
Elliot says he wants to avoid call centers consolidating.
"If we had to close this center our services would have to be transferred to a more regional center...so we would probably pay more and get less for the service."
In the Tri-Cities the Benton and Franklin county centers have already combined.
"That increased our calls for service exponentially, but only added the 10 employees that were engaged in Franklin county here," said Cobb.
All three directors don't know when the shortage will end, they simply know they need to find qualified people.
"We're working like in the high schools and in the colleges trying to get people who might want to do this, to apply...We need to achieve a balance where we're fully staffed so that they can have time off with their family and can have a life outside of this, because it's incredibly stressful," said Elliot.
Chelan, Douglas, and Adams are also experiencing this shortage, and in all it's an issue in majority of the country as of now.