URBANA, Ill. (WCIA)– Vacancies are not unusual at METCAD 9-1-1, but they are unusually high right now at the dispatch center that answers all of Champaign County’s emergency calls.

Staff members are often working 12-hour days, sometimes five or more days a week and it’s taking a toll, according to METCAD operations manager Betsy Smith.

It’s not far removed from the trend seen at local law enforcement agencies, and although they’re not officially recognized by state and federal government as first responders, Smith described those fielding initial emergency calls as the first, first-responders. What police, firefighters and EMS see, they hear.

According to Smith, METCAD 9-1-1 has been short-staffed most years since the center opened its doors in 1979.

That said, for an agency that’s fully staffed at 33 full-time employees, nine vacancies is one of the higher numbers it’s dealt with. That’s up from six vacancies six months ago.

Smith blamed a “nationwide staffing crisis”, pandemic politics, and “police reform issues” for the increase. We were given a similar explanation for the officer shortage at the Champaign Police Department.

“There’s a mental health aspect to it that the nation is dealing with,” she added. “And those types of calls, especially, have grown.”

She said the agency’s overtime budget has also increased dramatically. Although, according to Smith, much of that is offset by salary savings from the vacancies. She said the financial hit is not as hard as the hit to remaining staff.

“Financially, the hit is not as hard as it is to the staff,” Smith said. “You know, our people want to be able to just work their eight hours a day and go home, and have both of their days off.”

The operations manager said she hopes recent updates to training and technology will improve the retention of dispatchers, something Smith said has been a cyclical issue historically.

“Until you get here, until it affects you personally, it’s really hard for people to understand that that’s really what the job is. The job is 24/7, 365. Somebody has to be here all the time.”

METCAD plans to hold in-person information sessions in April for anyone who might be interested in dispatching as a career. These have been virtual throughout the pandemic, and Smith hopes being able to answer potential employees’ questions and network in-person will make a difference in staffing.