MERIDEN — Officials say the city’s emergency dispatch center — located inside Police Department headquarters — has become too small and inadequate to handle the center’s rising call volume.
The increase has prompted the city to pursue relocating the center.
The city is in the process of hiring a consultant who will assess different sites and make a recommendation later this year. Once a contract is awarded, the consultant will have six months to submit the study, City Manager Tim Coon said. The city has budgeted $50,000 for the study in its capital improvement plan.
Coon said he couldn’t offer an estimate for how much the relocation would cost,
“... it’s entirely dependent on what is recommended,” Coon said.
Emergency Communications Director Doree Price brought up the relocation project earlier this month, during her 2020-21 budget presentation to the City Council’s Finance Committee. She called the relocation her “largest goal” for the next fiscal year.
“The center needs the ability to expand for increased call volume, request for assistance or, in special events, natural disasters and the like,” Price told councilors. “The relocation would also allow for additional consoles, equipment and the ability to train staff and have a break room or quiet area for the employees to go after a critical incident such as shootings or suicides. And for training, it would be really important, as well. Right now, they sit close together and there’s really no space for the trainee to sit.”
Price didn’t return a request for an interview this week.
The talks about relocation are happening as the center’s volume of CAD, or computer-aided dispatch, continues to rise. In 2019, the center received a total of 60,279 CAD calls, a 10.7 percent increase from 54,431 in 2018 and a 16.8 increase from 51,604 in 2017.
The growing call volume has put increased pressure on a dispatch center that officials say has been severely understaffed over the years. The city budgets for 18 dispatchers at the center, however, currently there are only eight certified dispatchers working in the department and four others being trained.
The understaffing requires dispatchers to regularly work overtime to fill the required shifts.
“When you’re down that many positions, it’s a lot of overtime for the staff. They are working 12 and 16 hours,” Price told councilors during her budget presentation. “Their voluntary overtime is all (1.5x pay) and once it goes beyond 12 hours of voluntary overtime, it’s double time. Normally we don’t hit that mark all the time, but because we have a lot of overtime, a lot of it is mandated double overtime”
The overtime line in Price’s budget request is $425,000, and $408,455 is budgeted for overtime in the current year.
Coon said the center has struggled to recruit and retain dispatchers for several reasons, including that the city pays dispatchers less than most other municipalities and no longer offers a pension to new hires, unlike many other towns.
“People come here and they get certified and then they leave for places with pensions,” Coon said.
Coon has been working with Price, the dispatchers union, and the city’s Human Resources Department on short-, medium-, and long-term solutions to address staffing. One short-term solution under consideration is hiring part-time dispatchers to fill shifts short-term.
“The staffing at the dispatch center is frankly my highest priority and biggest concern staffing-wise in the city,” Coon said. “The numbers of staff are down dramatically and, as a result, you see the overtime number come up. I do not like that relationship.”
The new dispatch center sought by the city will provide more room to expand staffing, Price said. Coon hopes that by the time the project begins, the city will have added dispatchers.