Sunday, July 14, 2024

Cambridge‘s Emergency Communications Department. (Photo: City of Cambridge)

Cambridge’s emergency services are staffed below the minimum number of dispatchers, who are quitting due to job stress, a union representative told city councillors Monday.

There is some difference of opinion on staffing levels: Joan Corey, a vice president and business agent for Teamsters local 25 Boston, said there are 21 trained dispatchers in an Emergency Communications Department that should have at least 36. The city said there are 26 active dispatchers in a department budgeted for 31, with three grant positions allocated for a total of 34 potential staffers.

This is “a very serious staffing shortage,” Corey said. “Greater efforts must be made to obtain and take care of these emergency telecommunication dispatchers and supervisors.”

The city’s dispatchers handle some 157,000 calls annually, or an average 124 emergency calls and 300 non-emergency calls daily, Corey said.

While three new call takers have been hired, training and certification for police and fire calls take at least six to nine months, Corey said. In the meantime, forced overtime and staffing shortages contribute to burnout, absenteeism and turnover.

“Public safety professionals have suffered through a tumultuous past few years,” including working through a pandemic and increased amounts of mental health calls, Corey said. “This is a high-stress work environment that is both emotionally exhausting and potentially traumatic.”

Christina Giacobbe, director of Emergency Communications and 911, agreed the industry “in general has suffered a significant staffing challenge post-Covid, and Cambridge’s Emergency Communications Department, like many, is currently below the national average. We continue to aggressively take steps to get ahead of these challenges with active recruitment, screening and selection of qualified applicants.”

Her department was exploring “options and solutions” with the union for help that could include part-time employment, Giacobbe said.

Hiring looks better from the city’s perspective, with Giacobbe’s department amid background checks on job candidates who came forward since a posting about open positions in February. “There was significant interest in the posting, and we have screened over 400 applicants,” with five “highly qualified” candidates attending the State 911 Dispatcher Academy and beginning work May 1, Giacobbe said.

Additional vacancies are expected due to resignations, retirements leaves of absence and promotions, but there are plans to hire four to five more dispatchers in June, Giacobbe said, and “we are confident that within the next few months, staffing levels at our Emergency Communications Center will stabilize and we will resume our staffing efforts at our normal rate of attrition.”

The city honored National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week from April 9 to 15, congratulating Melissa Carpenito as the 2022 Police Dispatcher of the Year; Bethany Morrissey as 2022 Fire Alarm Operator; Erica Crane as 2022 Communications Training Officer; Joseph Sullivan as 2022 Supervisor of the Year; and David Linehan as 2022 Emergency Medical Dispatcher of the Year.

This post was updated April 27, 2023, with information from Christina Giacobbe.