An Horry County 911 communications center supervisor called it the worst hour of her 27-year career. But it could have been worse had it happened 18 months earlier.
Calls for reports of an active shooter at Broadway at Beach during the July 4 fireworks display flooded the call center and its 13 employees on duty at the time.
Police say they’ve found no evidence there was ever an active shooter, and the chaos actually stemmed from a large fight, but the county’s 911 center still received more than 1,200 calls over two hours that night.
Cyndi Toppings, one of supervisors on duty at the time, said she’s never experienced anything like that, “nothing even close.”
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All local 911 calls go to the Horry County center, though protocol is to transfer police calls related to Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach and Surfside Beach to dispatchers in those departments, according to the county’s 911 director Renee Hardwick.
Toppings said her staff couldn’t transfer all those July 4 calls to Myrtle Beach police because they were overloaded, and they just tried to screen callers as fast as they could.
Following their active shooter training, Toppings said 911 call takers would quickly find out if the caller had seen the shooter. If they had, the call taker would ask for more information, but if not, they would simply tell the caller to get somewhere safe and move on to the next call, she said.
Even with that training, the call volume was too much to get to every caller, a fact that Toppings called “heartbreaking.”
“It’s hard to know you’re not able to answer every call coming in, even though you know many are redundant,” she said. “But deep down, I know we did all we could do.”
After the call volume died down, Toppings said employees worked to call back as many missed callers as possible, prioritizing calls that they could determine had come from locations not near Broadway at the Beach.
Hardwick acknowledged that she’s seen some criticism on social media about 911 callers not getting called back, but she pointed out that police were on the scene quickly and said her department hasn’t received any formal complaints.
“We only have so many people (answering phones),” she said. “Any (911 center) can be overwhelmed.”
From a staffing perspective, Horry County’s 911 center is in pretty good shape compared to others around the country, Hardwick said.
Of 55 total positions, she said the center has two vacancies and five recent hires that are undergoing training.
In Spartanburg County, their director of communications recently told the Herald-Journal they had 12 open 911 dispatcher jobs.
Hardwick said Horry County was in a similar position about a year and a half ago, but they’ve since made some changes to make staff retention a priority.
She said they’ve moved to permanent day and night shifts — each shift is 12 hours — to give employees more consistency in their work schedules, and leadership has made a more concerted effort to recognize dispatchers’ efforts.
Working such a stressful job, Hardwick said having more staff makes a big difference as it reduces the need for overtime and allows employees to “get a little normal in their lives” by knowing when they’ll have time off.
Toppings said dispatchers will “stick it out” during difficult times, meaning bouts of low employment and heavy overtime, “but only for so long.”
She joked that employees might have turned in their notice after the July 4 chaos if that had happened a year and a half earlier.
David Weissman: @WeissmanMBO, 843-626-0305