In Massachusetts 911 call centers, severe staffing problems and burnout – The Boston Globe

Staffing levels of dispatchers and call handlers plummeted during the pandemic and have been slow to recover, leading to a vicious cycle, workers say, of overwork and burnout for a key part of the public safety apparatus in Cambridge, Boston and many gods More than 200 call centers in the state.

There is an oft-quoted statistic from two industry surveys that in recent years, particularly after the pandemic, shippers have had an annual attrition rate of around 30% and as a result, staffing levels have dropped by a similar rate. While the severity of the situation varies from department to department, it is universally recognized that the industry faces challenges and must innovate even if this means normalizing remote work or creation of more regional call centers. Otherwise, workers like Wright will continue to face forced overtime.

Coming to work, you never feel like you\’re about to go home at the end of your scheduled shift, Wright said.

Last month, Wright\’s union, Teamsters Local 25, sent a letter to city councilors and the mayor complaining of a severe staffing shortage that is nearing the point where it is harming public safety.

Forced overtime and understaffing all contribute to burnout, absenteeism and turnover, the letter said.

Cambridge 911 director Christina Giacobbe said she was optimistic that eight new hires at an increase of around 33% from current staffing will lighten the load.

I am confident that by August we will start to see real improvements, she said.

Giacobbe, a former dispatcher, admitted current working conditions are tough, but said thanks to forced overtime, the center meets minimum staffing requirements and won\’t drop calls.

Meanwhile, the workforce is also in crisis in Boston. Anthony Landry, a former Boston dispatcher and policy director of the SEIU 888 union that represents 911 center employees, said the city should have 40 dispatchers and 65 call workers, but instead has closer to 30 and 40, respectively. When you dial 911 in Boston, you speak to a call attendant, who then relays the information to a dispatcher, who contacts the appropriate emergency services.

Any territory outside of exhausted and fatigued is where they\’re at, Landry said.

Last year, the city released an audit it had commissioned from Mission Critical Partners, a firm that focuses on 911 call centers, who said: Staffing is a pressing problem and will only get worse if concerted efforts aren\’t made.

Unfortunately, this is typical, said project lead Bonnie Maney in a recent interview. Staffing in 911 centers is in crisis.

The 423-page report criticized the department\’s working conditions, which result in excessive mandatory overtime per person, and said the pandemic had further exacerbated some of the long-standing problems and further degraded low morale.

Maney said Boston has made several changes since the report which he believes could help attract and retain workers, including wage increases, reclassification of call center workers as first responders for the purpose of better retirement benefits, and approving a three-year waiver of the city\’s residency requirement.

This is a big ship and it will take some time to turn around, Maney said.

In response to questions at a recent city council meeting, Boston Police Commissioner Michael Cox touted last year\’s pay increases for downtown and said the police department is working to improve conditions there.

We need to attract people to all parts of our work, Cox said, referring to the department and the call center collectively. I will do everything I can to continue working with the 911 people… to make sure they get the services they need.

These problems also plague suburban and rural parts of the state, said Erin Hastings, head of the Massachusetts Communications Supervisors Association, which represents about 90 call centers.

Everyone is short on overtime, said Hastings, a longtime dispatcher who is now an executive at the 911 center in the Springfield area.

Despite the problems, state officials say the calls have not been dropped.

Even though we have a shortage in this Commonwealth, all 911 calls are answered, said Frank Pozniak, executive director of the Massachusetts 911 Department.

He said there are always contingencies in place. For example, each call center is assigned another to back up if it is overwhelmed on a particular day.

He said the state has deployed what it calls the 60-member Telecommunications Emergency Response Team, which is meant to step in and help a center when staffing levels become critical. The need for this, she said, has increased in recent years as the dropout rate has increased.

Pozniak said that one reason this sector is struggling to attract and retain workers is the lack of a remote work option.

As for 911, it\’s a 24/7 job, and you have to be there, Pozniak said. In this world, we have become remote in many areas, but you cannot do it remotely.

But it should be something the state looks at down the road, he said.

I think the technology is there, he said, noting that some other cities around the country have done so during the pandemic, but that Massachusetts has a different kind of system that hasn\’t been tried yet for remote work.

Currently, the state is pushing regionalization, urging smaller towns to unite in the name of staffing and operational efficiency.

Massachusetts currently has 211 call centers, and while Pozniak declined to say what he sees as an ideal number, the hope is for it to drop below 200 in the next few years, down from 268 in the late 2000s. He stressed the fact which 31 right now are regional.

One example is the Hastings-operated center: WESTCOMM Regional Dispatch, which covers Chicopee and several surrounding communities. He said the center is almost full.

We\’re doing well, he said, adding that because it\’s a larger organization, the center has had flexibility during the pandemic to change the way it does scheduling and try to keep the burden from falling heavily on individual shippers.

He said changes like Boston\’s that include reclassifying shippers as first responders for retirement could help reduce the high turnover characteristic of jobs.

We have to change the culture, public awareness, laws that this is not just secretarial, he said. It\’s not a career.

Sean Cotter can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @cotterreporter.

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