MERIDEN — City officials told the City Council last week that while staffing of the city’s Emergency Communications Center is at critical levels, public safety is “not at risk.”
Meanwhile, union leaders countered with a message stating the opposite — the center is dangerously short-staffed and employee morale is deteriorating.
The dispatch center handles all calls for police, fire and medical emergencies.
Fire Chief Kenneth Morgan, who had stepped in as acting city manager for City Manager Timothy Coon, read the brief update during the City Council’s remote meeting on Aug. 2
“I wanted to assure the public that public safety is not at risk as a result of dispatcher staffing at the Emergency Communications Center being at a critical level,” Morgan said to the council. “This is because, with the additional assistance of the fire department, police department, staff and the union, coverage is being met.
“This is certainly a short-term solution while additional full-time dispatchers are being trained,” Morgan added.
However, Morgan’s message contrasted with a separate statement issued the same day by the union representing the dispatchers, the American Federal of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1303-405.
In the statement, Betty Marotti, president of Local 1303-405, highlighted the difference in staffing numbers between now and five years ago. In 2016 the city employed 17 full-time dispatchers. The number most recently whittled down to four. The dispatchers employed have gone from working 72 to 88 hours a week to more than 100 hours weekly, Marotti said.
"This is not the way to keep a 24-7 emergency dispatch operation running smoothly and safely,” Marotti said. “... We are not able to take any meaningful time off to rest or recuperate, as those requests are being denied. It’s no surprise that morale has deteriorated.”
Morgan, during the council meeting, listed measures the city had implemented in recent months in response to the shortage. They include bringing in police and fire personnel to cover open shifts, bonuses for certified full and part-time dispatchers, revamping the city’s training program, along with working with the dispatchers union to bring in per diem dispatchers from other municipalities.
Morgan told the council three dispatchers were currently in training. One was ready to begin shift work soon, with the other two expected to begin within the next two to four weeks.
Morgan said five other full-time hires, including two who are fully certified, will also be “cycled through” the city’s training program.
Morgan explained the city had also reached out to the Capital Region Team, an organization set up to assist local dispatch centers experiencing staffing shortages, “and was told that they could not assist, as statewide, dispatchers are in short supply.”
Marotti, meanwhile, stated current working conditions “are driving out good and dedicated dispatchers not just from the ranks of full-time employees but also from our training classes. We are at the breaking point. This situation is a threat not just to our health and safety, but to the safety of police officers, firefighters and above all the public we serve.”
The union shared letters written by former dispatchers who had left over the past year. They described a toxic work environment that had worsened with the ongoing staffing issues.
"Our union remains committed to working in good faith with the City to fix the problems impacting our operations. We want to be part of the solution. At the same time, we need action, and we need it now," Marotti stated.
Deputy Mayor Michael Cardona, reached on Friday, said as chairman of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee he has made clear to city officials that the staffing situation is a serious concern and that addressing it is a priority. He said all city councilors share those concerns.
Cardona said the filling of dispatcher shifts with fire personnel is a temporary solution. He said the measure “alleviates” his concerns about the hours that the full-time dispatchers are currently working.
“It’s not a successful transition until we have full staffing of dispatchers,” Cardona said.