The calls Marilyn Rodriguez enjoys usually go something like, "There's a squirrel in my yard. What should I do?"
With patience, kindness, and a focused stare at four computer monitors that illuminate her face in a slightly darkened room, Rodriguez, a seasoned 911 dispatcher, explains to the caller, often an older person from one of Montgomery County's 62 municipalities, that unless someone is hurt, frankly there's not much to do.
Those, Rodriguez says, are the easy phone calls.
The hard ones, she says, are distressed calls from children. Domestic violence calls. Sometimes it's an undocumented immigrant on the other end of the line, Rodriguez says, afraid to report violence for fear of what might happen to legal status, until Rodriguez, who is Puerto Rican, coaxes them in Spanish to report danger.
There are still worse calls that Rodriguez, 42, of Levittown, receives every day at the Emergency Operations Center in Montgomery County in Eagleville, where she's worked for the last 10 years. And as the calls pour in, the county — like so many other counties and states nationwide — has grappled with a dire shortage of 911 call-takers and dispatchers, jobs with long hours, high stress and a salary that nets less than $45,000 in Montgomery County. In effect, each employee in the county's call room has taken on more and more calls that report everything from benign squirrel sightings, to car crashes, to murders.
"I'm averaging about 200 calls a day during a 12-hour shift, I would say, on a regular, average day," said Louis Collins, who began working in February as a 911-call-taker for Montgomery County after he quit his job as a manager at McDonald's. "I know some of our busier days, especially with the weather and whatnot, I was taking about 250-plus."
To shore up Montgomery County's understaffed call center, hiring managers on Wednesday invited interested candidates to show up at the Emergency Operations Center, 50 Eagleville Rd., and apply for a job. No appointments were necessary, and 35 people showed up and applied, county officials said. The applicants will be told next week if they have jobs, and would start training in late September.
It's the first time the county tried its hand at marathon hiring for call-takers and police dispatchers in a single day, said Jen Cass, assistant director for operations at Montgomery County's Emergency Operations Center. And with 30 open positions for the call center, Cass said this could be a more efficient way to fill jobs.
But hiring is only half of the struggle. Retention, she said, is another challenge.
"At this point, if we can keep people for up to five years, that's our goal," said Cass, who began working at the county's call center shortly after high school and has worked as a police dispatcher for 23 years.
Despite incentives like health insurance, pension enrollment, and partial college tuition reimbursement that aim to keep call-takers and dispatchers as longtime employees, some people simply don't stick it out, Cass said.
Before training, the starting salary is $35,600, Cass said. (It moves up to around $42,000 after training.) The night shift, which starts at 7 p.m. and ends at 7 a.m., can be tough for people accustomed to a more conventional working schedule, or for people whose families don't want to accommodate the graveyard shift. And, Cass said, some of the calls employees receive can be hard on the psyche.
"Some days are really, really hard," Cass said. "We're noticing more and more telecommunicators are struggling with their jobs if they hear a bad call."
To decompress after a particularly disturbing call, there's a quiet room employees can use to unwind, Cass said.
"Isn't it nice?" she said proudly, standing in a dark, cozy room outfitted with sofas, a plush rug and a table lamp that glows sunset orange. Rules for the room ask for silence and a no-phone policy.
Standing near the quiet room, Amanda Moyer, a six-year dispatcher for the county, said her hour drive home back to Reading helps her relax.
"For the most part, I do OK with it," Moyer, 27, said of the toll the job can take on her. "It's weird. The stress, I do OK with it. It was rough in the beginning."
But six years in, Moyer said, she's had every kind of call.