MERIDEN — Rocky Hill resident Luis Moreira is more than two months into his training as a public safety dispatcher in the city of Meriden.
In a room located just a few doors down from the main lobby of Meriden police headquarters, Moreira peered at four large screens, with lines of text and multicolored blocks that showed active emergency calls throughout the city. He was one of several dispatchers and trainees coordinating police, fire and medical responses to a range of ongoing emergencies on Thursday afternoon.
On that particular weekday afternoon, just past the midpoint of what is officially considered National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, city officials, news media and other members of the public visited the center, briefly chatting with its leadership, dispatchers and trainees like Moreira.
In recent years the dispatch center has been beleaguered by ongoing staffing challenges. The center needs at minimum 12 full-time certified dispatchers in order to be considered fully staffed. By February 2022, when current Emergency Communications Director David Boyce was promoted to that role, the center had four such dispatchers. Union leaders first sounded the alarm over staffing in 2021 as individual dispatchers continually worked 18-hour-long shifts and logged 100-plus-hour work weeks.
In 2021, as a measure to alleviate the ongoing staffing challenges, city officials and union leaders entered into an agreement allowing firefighters to earn overtime by picking up dispatch shifts. That agreement will remain in place until the center reaches 12 full-time dispatchers who are qualified to work on their own.
Now the center has nine dispatchers working on their own, Boyce said. “In two weeks, we’ll have 10. So that’s the most staffing that we’ve had in a very long time.”
Boyce estimated that a few months from now the center will achieve that long sought number 12.
As staffing numbers improve that means existing staff members are getting much needed time off, Boyce said. “Every time you add someone you’re taking 40 hours off the schedule, plus any overtime shifts that they voluntarily take.”
The center currently has three new dispatchers in training. Those trainees come from other dispatch centers and are already certified.
“So they should be online a lot quicker than someone who is brand new,” said Boyce, who brings more than two decades of experience working in emergency communications.
The training of already certified dispatchers involves familiarizing them with the city’s dispatch system and protocols. There are some differences in the number of police officers and fire apparatuses that should be sent to calls under similar circumstances.
“Hopefully, before July, we should have at least 12 to 13 dispatchers working on their own, not in training,” Boyce said. The center’s current staffing also includes four part-time dispatchers who are working “on their own, not in training,” Boyce said.
The director said 12 is a “very, very comfortable” staffing number. His ideal number of full-time dispatchers is 14.
Assistant Director N’Koy Moore joined the Meriden center after working 18 years in New Haven.
“It was time for a change,” Moore said. “And I like it here. It’s a very friendly atmosphere here in the city. All the different agencies like to work well together.”
He contrasted that camaraderie from his previous employment where inter-agency communication was far less frequent.
Moore, who previously worked on ambulances as an emergency medical technician, said he came to be a dispatcher by accident. He was on the road with his former ambulance company, and was informed that the dispatch center needed help. So he picked up the extra hours and found he liked the work.
“Then New Haven was hiring, so I applied for them,” Moore said.
Moore explained that he’s gotten a good feel for both worlds in the emergency field — working on the road and behind the scenes in a dispatch center.
“You get to see what happens in the room when calls come in. Then, the other half, when you’re actually going to a call — how the information that we gather here is very important to the response. It’s very nice to be able to put those two worlds together.”
As Moore spoke, no fewer than four dispatchers and trainees sat at stations peering out at no fewer than four screens at the center he helps oversee.
City officials plan to eventually relocate the center into a new facility, behind the city’s Pratt Street fire station. Those plans, which include an expansion, are still underway. The cost of that move is $4.8 million. City officials anticipate $4 million in state funding will cover the majority of those expenses.
A large poster was hung on the current center’s rear wall, commemorating Public Safety Telecommunicators Week. Dozens of handwritten messages were scrawled on that poster, thanking dispatchers for their service and wishing them well. Some messages had names next to them, others had police officers’ badge numbers below them.
Before he joined the Emergency Communications Center staff in Meriden, the 37-year-old Moreira worked as a special education teacher. He told the Record-Journal he sought a change of pace. Moreira said he’d always been interested in law enforcement. So when he saw an online posting for emergency communications dispatchers, he went for it. His commute from Rocky Hill is only a 20-minute drive.
Moreira said it took a couple of weeks to adjust to a schedule that now includes overnight shifts.
“What I like about this job is helping the public, especially in times of distress,” Moreira said. Those who make a 911 call, are doing so because they are faced with an ongoing emergency. “So they depend on you to get the right help,” Moreira said.
A reporter asked Moreira how he manages the stress of fielding emergency calls. Breathing exercises help out a lot, he said. As does sticking to the script he’s learned during his training and making the most of his down time away from work.
“I’m outside a lot. I hike a lot,” Moreira said. “In terms of stressful situations, you just have to breathe and follow the protocols.”