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Metro's 911 operators face high turnover and growing vacancies

Posted at 12:35 PM, Apr 08, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-08 19:40:12-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — They are first voice you hear when you call for help.

Nashville's 911 operators are busier than ever, but high turnover has led to a growing number of vacancies inside the department.

Alisa Franklin has been a 911 operator for 25 years.

"I've been there through the tornado, the floods, I've been through it all, Franklin said.

But now she is alarmed by what is happening in her department .

It is dramatically understaffed.

"The staffing is probably the lowest I've seen it at 911. It's probably the lowest we've been," Franklin said.

In March of 2015 the department had three vacancies.

Last month the department had 34 vacancies.

In fact every month this year, more than 30 of the department's 190 positions have been open.

Emergency Communications Director Michele Donegan discussed the high turnover rate during Mayor Briley's budget hearings last month.

"Our organization is currently at a 21% attrition rate," Donegan said.

She said it has increased overtime costs and put extra stress on employees.

"They're putting in extra hours after their shift and they are giving up their days off," Donegan told the Mayor.

Sadona Chance spent 18 years working at 911 but retired five months ago.

"I feel guilty because I did retire, and I've left them one more person short," Chance said.

She and Alisa Franklin say the vacancies come down to pay and benefits.

"The Mayor needs to do whatever he's got to do to get that straightened out," Chance said.

The starting salary for a 911 operator is $33,098 a year.

But employees were shocked when they saw the starting salary at Metro's newly opened 311 call center - where operators answer questions about Metro services - was $36,094.

At least one 911 operator applied to be a 311 operator.

Others left after Metro spent a full year training them.

"If I was to start this job now, I wouldn't do it because I could go to Verizon and be a call taker there with a lot less stress," Franklin said.

Vacancies have gone up month by month since the middle of last year when the Mayor and Metro Council went back on a promised three percent pay raise.

"That was like, ok then, you don't care. I'm going. It's time for me to get out of here," Chance said.

"Something's missing to me," Franklin said. "It just feels like something's missing. I don't see how any of the Metro departments should be suffering."

They were both happy to hear Mayor Briley announce employees would get a raise in the next budget.

But they say in this booming city where they take more than a million calls a year, they should be classified as Public Safety employees, just like police and fire fighters.

"We suffer from post traumatic stress. A lot of us do, like officers and the fire department," Franklin said.

That new classification would allow them to retire earlier, and Franklin said it would encourage younger people to make a career taking emergency calls.

"It's just a tough thing to do in today's world," Franklin said.

Both said something must change.

They cannot keep losing operators, working overtime and taking more and more calls.

"If you don't have 911 there, who are you going to call?" Chance said.

Metro is now working to promote 911 operators more quickly, so they can earn a higher salary faster.

But for now their starting salary remains lower than what 311 operators make.