Meriden dispatch chief says five new hires will offer relief to short-staffed department

Meriden dispatch chief says five new hires will offer relief to short-staffed department


MERIDEN — An increase in call volume, staffing shortages and the recent death of a veteran dispatcher have resources stretched thin at the city’s emergency dispatch center.

Five new hires are expected to start in the coming weeks, which will offer some relief to workers at the center, according Emergency Communications Director Doree Price.

Twelve employees currently work in the dispatch center in three-person shifts around the clock, Price said. The new hires will allow four people to work on each shift and provide greater flexibility for overtime.

Janet Roller, a longtime employee of the dispatch center, died last month, further aggravating issues with staffing, Price said.

Besides being an experienced dispatcher, Roller was an anchor in the center who responded calmly to stressful situations and kept a positive attitude, often consoling police officers and other employees.

“A lot of people referred to her a ‘Momma Roller,’” said Roller’s daughter, Megan Sparks, who also works in the dispatch center, along with her brother Brian.

“The (dispatch) center is so different without her,” Sparks added. “It’s a little dimmer. There’s something missing.”

Dispatchers work long hours and are mandated to cover extra shifts to meet staffing requirements. Additionally, the summer months typically see an increase in call volume, Price said. Between April and June, the department handled nearly 13,000 calls.

“You have less people and they are also tired. They are working longer hours, overtime, and there’s increased call volume they are dealing with so it’s tough,” Price said.

Several disciplinary letters have been issued to dispatch staff this year, involving issues stemming from use of sick time and dispatching errors. One dispatcher was disciplined after being accused of purposely packaging vacation time, sick days and regular days off on several occasions, burdening the dispatch center staff.

Price said mistakes are inevitable due to the high stress working environment, but after concerns are addressed employees rarely have the same problem again.

“It’s to be expected. They have a lot of stress,” Price said.

To alleviate stress, the dispatch center had been funding massages for it’s employees in lieu of stress reduction training, which an agreement with the dispatchers union stipulates should be provided three times a year. Due to staffing shortages, providing stress reduction training to employees was replaced by massages by Body Focus Therapeutic Massage in Middletown at a cost of $65 to $70 per session. The practice began in 2013, when Frank Kiernan was head of the dispatch center. Kiernan resigned in March 2016. Price previously worked as public safety communications director in Bridgeport, and was hired in August 2016.

Price said she became aware of the massages in November and notified City Manager Guy Scaife. The practice was ceased shortly thereafter. Prior to that, the city had spent $7,117 on massages for staff over a period of five years.

“For the city to pay for a massage I don’t feel is appropriate,” Price said. “We all know that dispatchers have a stressful job and we certainly want to alleviate that, but we can do training.”

In an email to Scaife in November, Price explained that she had not seen a signed agreement by the city for the massage service to continue on an annual basis. The owner of the massage business sent a copy of an explanation of services to Price which the business owner had provided to Kiernan in 2013.

“Apparently some (dispatch) employees told her it was still in effect and they have been receiving massages,” Price wrote to Scaife.

A stress reduction training session was given to staff earlier this year, according to Price. Once staffing levels have increased at the center, Price said, they will be offering more classes to help reduce employee stress.

City Councilor David Lowell, who also serves as a member of the council’s public safety committee and executive vice president of Hunter’s Ambulance, said the new positions will improve conditions at the dispatch center.

“Five positions will help greatly to reduce the additional hours some people are working now and change what their regular hours are which is critical,” Lowell said. “They are the air traffic control of our public safety in this city but we need the bodies in the seats to lessen the burden on each of them.”
Twitter: @LeighTaussRJ


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