Getting Answers: emergency dispatcher staffing shortages

Western Mass News recently learned that there is a dispatcher shortage locally with one dispatch center in Chicopee is four dispatchers away from potentially ha
Updated: May. 9, 2022 at 6:15 PM EDT
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CHICOPEE, MA (WGGB/WSHM) - When calling 911, a dispatcher is the first one to answer your call and they are a critical lifeline for many. Western Mass News recently learned that there is a dispatcher shortage locally with one dispatch center in Chicopee is four dispatchers away from potentially having a delay in emergency response.

[Reporter: Are you really able to manage?]

“We are managing right now. If we were to get any lower, we would be struggling. We’d have to consider shortening our minimum staffing,” said Erin Hastings, executive director of WestComm.

Right now, WestComm is short six dispatchers with 30 currently on staff. This is the biggest shortage Hastings has seen in her 30-year career.

“They’re answering about 400 calls a day right now,” Hastings added.

If Hastings loses four more dispatchers, she would have to make shift changes for those 26 dispatchers serving Chicopee, Ware, Monson, Longmeadow, and East Longmeadow. She told Western Mass News that if this happened, she would not be able to maintain minimum staffing, making it longer for calls to get dispatched out to responders, and potentially causing a delay in responding to emergencies. If dispatchers can’t answer a call within 21 seconds, the call gets rolled to another dispatch center.

“Our 911s will roll to Holyoke and then if for some reason they can’t get it, it will actually roll to Northampton…the state police regional center up there,” Hastings noted.

A shortage of staff certainly affects dispatchers on the job.

“If we don’t have the proper staffing, it puts more stress on us,” said WestComm Dispatcher Tom Ciarla.

Ciarla is feeling the brunt end of WestComm’s staffing shortage.

“Do you feel overworked? Yes, there are times that that phone just seems like it never stops ringing. You don’t feel like there’s an end in sight, especially if there is a major car accident,” Ciarla added.

Dispatchers are certainly taking on more tasks, Hastings said.

“We run six dispatchers on a day shift, seven on the eve shift, and five at midnight. We would consider maybe bringing the evening shift down to six dispatchers, so now, they’re doing twice as much work in the same amount of time,” Hastings explained.

While Hastings made a total of 45 hires since starting at WestComm in 2019, she told us 15 have already left.

“We do seem to have quite a bit of turnover, but we were looking at studies for just employment in general, most people aren’t holding jobs for more than three years,” Hastings said.

WestComm is getting enough applicants to potentially fill six roles. However, just like during the height of the pandemic, many people are not showing up for interviews.

“115 applicants will probably give us maybe 20 qualified applicants and then out of the 20, we’re having a hard time getting people to show up for interviews. That’s one of the big things. We’ll schedule 10 interviews, we’ll get five that actually show up and come in,” Hastings added.

Even if Hastings hired someone today, they wouldn’t start taking calls until they completed four months of full-time training.

“…And that’s if they started today. We’re looking at probably a two-month process of getting them through a background check and vetting them as an employee,” Hastings said.

The starting pay for dispatchers at WestComm is $20.86 cents an hour. If you want to apply to be a dispatcher, information can be found here.