Boston Police dispatchers warn of 'dire straits' staffing levels

A Boston PD spokesperson acknowledged the shortage, saying low dispatcher staffing levels is something of a national trend


By Sean Philip Cotter
Boston Herald

BOSTON — Boston Police dispatchers are calling for help, saying increasingly low staffing levels are making a tough job untenable as more and more employees leave.

Sean Murphy, a former BPD dispatcher, quit this year to work for the union that represents the workers, and he said he's one of multiple dispatchers and calltakers who have had enough and left.

"A lot of long-term people like myself have decided that they're tired of waiting for them to do the right thing," Murphy, who now works for SEIU 888, said of the police department. "There's been an extreme rate probably over the past year or so."

He said it's gotten so bad that people who've put in 15 or 20 years of the 25 needed for a full pension are simply deciding it's not worth it to hang in.

"So that should be one indicator of how things are," he told the Herald.

Murphy and Neil O'Brien, 888's business manager, say the police department hasn't done a good enough job keeping the calltaker and dispatcher offices staffed. They describe what amounts to something of a vicious cycle, where the department fell behind on hiring, which led to the job becoming more difficult — leading to more people leaving, compounding the issue.

"The department completely and totally fell down on hiring," O'Brien told the Herald. "They're in dire straits."

O'Brien said the BPD switched over the summer to 12-hour shifts in an effort to keep all the time slots covered. That alone led to a handful of resignations, he said.

The union officials claim that there should be around 80 calltakers, but the department is 26 short, and that there should be about 40 dispatchers, but they're down 12.

The department always declines to reveal staffing levels, and continued that practice regarding calltakers and dispatchers, who all work out of the BPD headquarters at 1 Schroeder Plaza off of Tremont Street in Roxbury.

Boston Police Sgt. Detective John Boyle, a department spokesman, acknowledged that there have been some "unforeseen resignations" that have led to lower staffing levels. He said the city is undertaking an "aggressive push" to fill these positions, and indeed already has hired several people who now are going through the training process.

"Our 911 calltakers and dispatchers are definitely stepping up to the plate," Boyle said. "We appreciate all the work that they do. It's a very difficult job, and their hard work and professionalism has not gone unnoticed."

He encouraged anyone interested to apply through the city's employment website.

The SEIU folks also are worrying that the department is trying to have many members of the current cadre of 22 BPD cadets quickly learn to take calls. Boyle said that's not happening "right now," though the cadets are getting training. He said the idea is to offer the cadets the ability to take a gig in dispatching or call taking as they work to become cops.

Boyle said the calltaker and dispatcher shortages aren't causing public-safety issues. There are currently "adequate resources" to handle the job given the extra shifts, he said, and if there's a surge, the calls head to Boston Fire and state police calltakers before being routed back to Boston dispatchers.

He said the difficulties with 911 dispatcher staffing levels are something of a national trend. That's certainly true, according to local news reports from around the country that detail call centers forcing overtime and desperately looking for bodies. It's also hardly a new problem, as articles going back years highlight such issues in areas urban and rural.

Murphy and O'Brien — and Boyle — noted that the job at the best of times can be difficult, and with high turnover.

"It's a very stressful job — I mean people burn out all the time," Murphy said. The calltakers in particular have to deal with hearing about "murders, suicides, how to administer CPR — any negative thing you can imagine comes across those phone lines."

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