Kershaw Co. dispatchers write anonymous letters warning staffing and low morale will impact public safety

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Published: Mar. 10, 2022 at 6:11 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 10, 2022 at 6:29 PM EST
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CAMDEN, S.C. (WIS) - The more than 65,000 residents of Kershaw County rely on the county’s 911 dispatchers to be ready to take their call for emergencies.

WIS has obtained two anonymous letters sent to elected county leaders which allege low dispatcher morale and under-staffing which they fear might lead to unsafe scenarios for first responders and the public.

WIS has found no incidences where under-staffing at the dispatch center put residents or first responders in harms way.

WIS proceeded to speak with the authors. Additionally, WIS spoke with a former Kershaw County Dispatcher, the county administrator and two county councilmembers to get insight on the environment within the agency.

WIS also submitted Freedom of Information requests for information on overtime hours and agency funding.

The Kershaw County Central Dispatch website states it’s responsible for dispatching Kershaw County law enforcement, EMS, fire, rescue, utilities, and regional services.

The letters

In January and February, WIS obtained two anonymous letters written about the agency and emailed to county leaders.

WIS confirmed one letter was written by a current dispatcher and the second was written by a dispatcher who recently left the agency.

Kershaw County County Administrator Vic Carpenter confirmed the authenticity of the letters.

The first letter, obtained in January, lays out hypothetical emergency scenarios and poses rhetorical questions about a lack of dispatchers.

It lays out concerns about short-staffing, overtime and the county pay-scale.

The dispatcher writes:

This communication center is losing its long-term employees because they can go make what they are making now or even more somewhere else starting out that will give them more money once they complete training. Just imagine being in your career for 10 years working your way up from the bottom at 10 dollars an hour to a supervisor or someone that helps train new employees.

On your last pay raise you are bumped up to 15 dollars an hour only to find out that the people coming through the door are making the same as you. You are training someone to do your job for the same pay as them.

It continues on by describing a “bullying and hostile environment” at the agency.

The constant accusations of not doing our job right or doing something wrong without even investigating the situation. Everything through this center is recorded, radio transmissions and phones. So before berating your staff why not look into the accusations to make sure they are valid. Show support.

It ends by calling on county leadership to do more to retain employees.

The second letter, obtained in February, is more direct with its critiques.

It begins by the dispatcher questioning their future with the department and county leadership.

I used to have faith in our leadership, and trust that they would make the right decisions. The past several years have absolutely destroyed that faith, and trust in the governing body of Kershaw County. Kershaw County Dispatch has been decimated over the past three years, while the leadership of this County has done nothing more than watch, if they have even been bothered to do that.

It goes on to echo concerns about staffing and the training level of those who work at dispatch. It lays out potential safety consequences the dispatcher fears may result of because of those deficiencies.

The author then turns to the culture within the agency.

The ten dispatchers who remain, do so out of loyalty to each other, to Kershaw County Public Safety, and the citizens of this county. However at what point do they call it quits? When every mistake you make is critiqued, criticized, and complained about. When simple mistakes that hurt no one in the long run, get you yelled at, with no apology forthcoming even if you were in the right.

The most recent county records obtained by WIS show the department had 17 dispatchers by late January.

The dispatcher also echoes the pay concerns outlined in the first letter.

Interviews with the authors and their former colleague

After WIS obtained the two letters, WIS arranged interviews with the two authors and a former Kershaw County dispatcher who recently left the agency.

The author of the first letter is a currently employed as a dispatcher with Kershaw County.

The author of the second letter recently left their role as a dispatcher with the county.

All three interviews were conducted separately and WIS agreed to withhold their identities over concerns of retaliation.

They all said they got into the profession to help.

“I look at it as, if not me, then who? Because not everybody can do we what do,” the first author said.

The second author echoed the first author’s sentiments.

“You really feel like you’re making a difference, you’re being able to, really help these people. You’re talking to them on the phone, you’re getting them help when they so desperately need it,” the second author said.

The third individual, a former dispatcher, said their demeanor presented an opportunity to serve the community.

“That I can kind of help those people through their worst day ever. You learn how to calm them down. You learn how to kind of make a situation better,” the former dispatcher said.

The authors told WIS they decided to write the letters anonymously over concerns of retaliation. The first author said they are aware of one scenario where a dispatcher was publicly embarrassed for asking a question of HR. WIS cannot confirm this claim.

The former dispatcher expressed their support for the authors of the anonymous letters.

“There’s not one thing I would disagree with in any of those letters.”

In the letters and in their conversations with WIS, all three said issues with staffing and morale are driving down the number of dispatchers.

They feared first responders and citizens might be put at risk.

The state of staffing

All three individuals raised concerns over the agency’s current staffing, telling WIS a shortage of manpower has resulted in only three dispatchers operating on each shift.

Each said four or five dispatchers are needed per shift to effectively monitor the phones and the radios each shift is responsible for.

WIS filed a Freedom of Information request which produced dispatch scheduling records from Oct. 30, 2021 - Jan 21, 2022.

It provides mixed support for the dispatchers’ scheduling claims.

In each scheduling period, there are multiple days where only three dispatchers are scheduled to a shift.

However, the records also indicate staffing can fluctuate to as high as six dispatchers working at a time depending on the day/shift.

WIS found no instances where fewer than three dispatchers were ever on the clock at the same time.

Carpenter told WIS scheduled staffing goes up and down in part due to anticipated demand for services.

Over the course of Oct. 30, 2021 through Jan. 21, 2022, the agency’s total manpower fluctuated and ultimately declined by one full-time employee.

The agency began with 17 full-time employees and one part-time employee, and ended with 16 full-time employees and one part-time employee.

Over the course of the 12 weeks, the agency lost three full-time employees and added two.

Below is a graphic showing the breakdown of the agency’s staffing over the 12 weeks, showing full-time employees, part-time, and employees who made their first appearances on the payroll that scheduling period.

The schedule documents show agency overtime hours grew over the period, and coincided with the declining staff level in the final six weeks.

The final two-week period of Jan. 8 - Jan. 21, 2022 saw a peak in OT.

17 employees worked a combined 270 hours and 15 minutes of overtime, which averages out to be 15 hours and 54 minutes per dispatcher over those two weeks.

Over the 12 weeks, the agency tallied 1,388 hours and 45 minutes of overtime, resulting in an average of more than 76 hours of OT worked per dispatcher.

WIS found one dispatcher worked 85 hours and 30 minutes of overtime during the period of Nov. 13 through Nov. 26, reflecting 14 straight days of work over the two weeks.

The period included 11 shifts of 12 hours and one 18 hour shift.

Both Carpenter and the dispatcher confirmed to WIS that the OT schedule was voluntary. Carpenter told WIS dispatchers sign up for the overtime shifts they want to work.

He said if not enough sign-up, the necessary overtime shifts are split amongst the dispatchers.

The 85-hour dispatcher said the schedule was to help colleagues, pay bills, and prepare for Christmas.

Carpenter said that scenario is an outlier. The scheduling records show no dispatcher worked more than 49 OT hours over two weeks in that timeframe.

“This is the first time we’ve had someone sign up for that many hours in that period of time. So, honestly we haven’t needed to consider if this was an issue because it was self-regulating,” Carpenter.

Carpenter said he has “no reason to believe” the extended hours were unsafe for the dispatcher, the residents or first responders.

“Does it wear him out? Absolutely. Going forward, this is something we’re going to look at and consider.”

Carpenter later said he will work to make sure a similar situation doesn’t happen again.

The dispatcher who worked the 85 OT hours worked zero OT hours the following two weeks, and nine OT hours the two weeks after that.

After that (from Dec. 25 though Jan. 7) the dispatcher worked 48 hours and 45 minutes of OT, the second highest tally over the 12 weeks.

Dispatchers point to compounding staffing and morale issues

The two authors and former dispatcher told WIS that when they first arrived at Kershaw County dispatch, they felt comfortable with the staffing levels per shift.

Each individual’s time at the agency differed, but all have spent years at the agency.

The second author said even before the COVID-19 pandemic the agency struggled with a “dry-spell” of trainees who are willing and able to stay in the profession.

“We’ve had some people get hired who were trained longer than they should have been, who were never going to make it. People who made it who the majority of people said who never should have made it,” the second author said.

The first author said the most recent schedule in WIS’s possession (Jan. 8 - Jan. 21, 2022) “looks great” on paper but four of the dispatchers (out of the 17 agency’s employees) were trainees.

That author said the trainees are not approved to handle all agency’s responsibilities.

“They’re not signed off to be released on a shift. They’re not signed off to work every radio,” the first author said.

Both authors explained the important yet rigorous training process for dispatchers can hamper hiring.

“It takes so long for you to realize, yes they got it, no they don’t. And when you’re three months deep into training someone on how to do this, that’s three months that you’ve lost in training someone else that could have made it,” the first author said.

The third individual, the former dispatcher said veterans have also been leaving the agency.

“It wasn’t just the new people that were coming in that couldn’t handle it, or it just wasn’t the job for them. It was tenured people that were leaving, and that are still leaving and that are still looking to get out. There are several of them,” the third dispatcher said.

Scheduling records in WIS’s possession show three employees left between Oct. 30, 2021 through Jan. 21, 2022 though their seniority status was not indicated.

Issues of morale and leadership were common themes in the interviews. The current and former dispatchers spoke of their concerns about how employees were treated and how conflicts were resolved, such as picking sides in an inter-agency dispute before hearing out both sides of the conflict.

“It makes you feel terrible. I know I drove home from work many a nights just crying the whole way home, out of frustration, out of anger. I guess out of a lack of being able to feel like there was something I could do about it,” the third former dispatcher said.

The first author shared similar sentiments.

“I can pick up the phone and I can answer the phone and be cussed out. That I’m prepared for. That I know that that can happen. I can get screamed at. I’m prepared for that. What I don’t come to work for, to be prepared for, is the hostility that you feel when you walk into the room,” the first author said.

The second author said situation in the agency has caused an “almost toxic” environment, and pushing dispatchers away.

“There are people who have been applying for jobs, looking to get out,” the second author said.

The three interviewees said the county’s efforts to improve dispatcher pay scale further demoralized veterans.

The county moved beginning pay for dispatchers to $15 per hour.

The first author told WIS they made $13.87 before the pay bump for incoming dispatchers, and $16 after. The third dispatcher stated they made $15.57 before and $16.37 after.

The second author said they were making more than $16 before being bumped to $17.04.

They all expressed frustration at the now-shrunken pay gap between the rookies and veterans within the agency.

“It became a point we were barely a dollar apart in pay even though you had so much time in and so much knowledge,” the third former dispatcher said.

The first author called the move a “slap in the face.”

“You have someone that’s been here for 20 years and you’re telling them that you’re not worth more than $18 an hour but yet someone walking in the door, training to do your position is going to make $15 an hour,” the first author said.

Ultimately, the third former dispatcher said they left the agency over the OT, the critiques and the money.

“You can only take so much before you just break,” the third former dispatcher said.

The second author said the decision to leave was made after being questioned about the letter.

“I was going to get out before they can retaliate,” the second author said.

“A body can only take so much.”

Fears for safety

The authors and the former dispatcher did not point to any scenarios showing demonstrable consequences for Kershaw County safety, but they warn of potential future issues.

The first author described the current staffing level as a “breaking point.”

“Who has to get hurt for our administration to open their eyes and see that there is some kind of disfunction within our department to start asking questions?” the first author asked.

The first author did not make reference to any specific scenarios where a member of the public or first responders were put in harms way as a result of short-staffing at dispatch, but did raise concern about 911 calls going unanswered. “The other week when I was at work, all three of us were on the phone and there were two 911 lines ringing and we were all three on 911 lines. Who do we put on hold?”

The third former dispatcher echoed a similar concern. “Calls have sat on the board for a time that’s not acceptable. Not acceptable at all,” the third former dispatcher said.

The former dispatcher said the goal is to have a call dispatched in two minutes, but that there have been calls where the process takes five to 10 minutes.

The second author said there were no instances to their knowledge where the short-staffing had resulted in the public or first dispatchers being put in harms way.

“So far we’ve managed to keep up with it. So far,” the second dispatcher said.

“The people who are left are being worn out.”

Kershaw County Sheriff Lee Boan, Fire Chief Will Glover and 911 Communications Director Patricia Crawford did not return requests for comment on the story.

Kershaw County EMS Director Gerald Blanchard said there have been minor delays in EMS unit dispatch, but said that could be contributed to the volume of calls at the time.

Additionally, he said similar issues are seen state-wide and delays in Kershaw County are not wide-spread.

The two authors and the former dispatcher gave the following solutions to improve the situation at the agency:

  • Action on the pay scale
  • Management training
  • Improved communication with veteran dispatchers
  • Re-establish dispatcher confidence through positive re-enforcement

County response to the letters

The Kershaw County Council briefly discussed the agency and an anonymous letter near the end of its Jan. 25 meeting.

In the meeting, Councilman Jimmy Jones expressed disapproval of the anonymous nature of the letter he received. He later told WIS he’s only read one letter, but which letter remains unclear.

He said at the time:

“If there’s something wrong with the supervisor, you should be woman or man enough to stand up and come to the deputy administrator. We have a fair staff [Assistant County Administrator] Danny Templar will absolutely look at both sides, nobody’s job will be in jeopardy if they go above their supervisor,” Jones said.

He went on to state the county does need to take care of the county 911 operators, stating they are overworked and the agency is understaffed.

In the meeting, Templar said the issue is on his “front burner” stating it will be part of the upcoming budget process.

Sheriff Lee Boan posted appreciation for dispatchers on his Facebook in January after stopping by the dispatch center.

WIS organized interviews with Jones, Kershaw County Chairman Julian Burns and Carpenter in March over the issue.

Jones said prior to the letters being sent, he was not aware of any complaints within the agency outside of staffing concerns which have arisen nationwide over the course of the pandemic.

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He doubled-down on his comments made in the meeting, saying a “coward” writes an anonymous letter.

“I really don’t care, I think if you’re not willing to sit down and talk to me face-to-face about the issue, don’t write me an anonymous letter because I don’t know who you are,” he said.

However, Jones said he does want to see “immediate” urgency on the issue and plans to hold Carpenter accountable.

“He’s assured me that it’s being addressed. He’s assured me that’s it’s not as bad as it was seem to have been. He’s assured me that they’re absolutely going to be addressing the compensation, the pay, the hours,” Jones said.

Jones said he wants a “long-range” plan for corrective action and suggested using county financial reserves to address some 911 issues.

Burns said he also was not aware of the concerns of dispatchers prior to the letters being written.

“We’ve never had a failure because of any issues in our emergency response forces, to include 911,” he said.

He said he has not received any report describing the dispatch center in a “crisis” but did say the COVID-19 pandemic has hampered staffing and manpower needs to be addressed “as quickly as possible.”

WIS has documented how the pandemic has exacerbated staffing challenges for first responder agencies in the Midlands.

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Burns said he read the letters and relayed them to Carpenter and Templar for a “detailed” look for any potential corrective actions.

“We value feedback, no matter if it’s anonymous or otherwise, and all feedback is good feedback. So every employee in this county needs to know that if they have something to say it will be heard and respectfully answered,” he said.

He described Jones’ comments as unfortunate.

Burns said concerns over pay scale “is always an issue and we’re addressing that in our budget cycle coming up.”

“If Mr. Carpenter comes in at any time and says look I need to change this pay scale right now, then I would respond to that,” he said.

When it comes to agency morale, Jones said he had spoken with Carpenter.

“I’ve asked Mr. Carpenter what his confidence level in [management] and the answer was full support,” he said.

Carpenter declined to discuss personnel matters. He said he takes the letters very seriously, but said employees are aware his door is open for concerns.

“No we’re not perfect. You never are with 600 employees. You’re always going to have some issues over there. The atmosphere is such that you would almost have to have more evidence of issues going on than two anonymous letters, you would have to with the depth of the organization, with the number of people working here,” he said.

He said the letters are the first evidence of issues he’s had in 11 years. “So again that kind of tells you something that, it’s something that’s serious and needs to be taken seriously. But is it endemic? Is it a crisis? I mean it’s important. It’s very important and we’re addressing it.”

He said the county began looking at its competitiveness to attract manpower during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“911 is one of the areas that as we looked into it and better understood some of their needs and circumstances, and talked to them,” he said.

The emphasis on manpower is reflected in the county budgets.

The Fiscal Year 2022 budget saw a substantial increase in both overall dispatch budget and money set aside for full-time salaries.

The overall budget for Kershaw County Central Communications was raised from $1.23 million in FY2021 to $1.45 million in FY2022.

The money available for full-time salaries jumped from $760,094 to $892,455 as well.

The department is budgeted currently for 23 full-time employees and 3 part-time employees.

Carpenter said the evaluation is ongoing for the next budget year. WIS asked about the $15/hour pay bump for hires and concerns over the pay scale.

“Salaries were adjusted. Now not every salary necessarily went up $2-3 an hour in comparison, but every salary was adjusted to ensure people who had time on the job did still have the benefit of being ahead, so to speak, of a new hire,” he said.

He said “we are looking at everything” to stay competitive, but that some employees are looking for better vacation/work hours as compared to pay.

Carpenter declined to explicitly say money exists to alter salaries before the next budget. He did say the existing budget allows for flexibility, but there are competing needs.

“Theoretically, within the context of the budget, if you’ve got money available then we can allocate it as we best see fit,” he said.

County records show $462,255.63 of the $892,455 full-time salary budget has been spent as of Feb. 25.

The FY22 OT budget for the agency is $118,981, with $97,014.12 spent as of that date.

Ultimately, Carpenter said the public’s safety is not in question and calls are being answered.

“There’s no evidence that our citizens are currently or ever have been at risk or will be in the future,” he said.

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