A nagging shortage of emergency dispatchers who answer calls to police and fire departments around the state has prompted legislation that could improve the pension benefits earned by the workers.
Legislators on Monday will hear testimony on a bill that would open up special state retirement plans that previously were available only to police, fire and emergency medical service personnel. The legislation is part of a years-long effort by advocates to include dispatchers and emergency 911 call operators in the popular definition of who is considered a first responder, acknowledging the critical role they play in ensuring public safety throughout Maine and the nation.
“It’s very demanding, stressful, emotionally charged work, so that leaves it being a hard job to fill positions, and that has led to a lot of forced overtime,” said Sarah Bigney, an organizer with the Maine AFL-CIO, which is advocating for the change in pension options. “They’re having a hard time recruiting and retaining staff. So one tool that could be a solution is this bill.”
If passed into law, the measure would allow dispatchers or their representatives to negotiate for retirement benefits that kick in after 20 or 25 years of service, instead of alternative plans that would require decades longer service or for workers to reach 62 1/2 years old, according to text of the legislation, L.D. 1395, which is due for a public hearing Monday before the joint standing committee on Labor and Housing.
The bill is one of at least two pieces of legislation designed to help draw people into dispatching work and keep them long-term, and to enable municipalities to attract qualified applicants in an increasingly competitive job market. The other, which has not yet been scheduled for a hearing, would help dispatchers diagnosed with work-related post-traumatic stress disorder receive worker’s compensation benefits.
The number of vacant dispatcher jobs varies across the state and there is no comprehensive data. The legislative proposals come as a regional labor shortage is making it more difficult to fill a variety of jobs in public safety, including police officers and corrections officers.
The Portland regional communication center handles calls for Portland, South Portland and Cape Elizabeth, and the three communities split the costs of the operation. Portland is authorized for 37 dispatchers, with a salary budget of roughly $1.3 million, but the center is currently down five positions, said Vern Malloch, Portland’s interim police chief.
The vacancies are driving overtime spending and Malloch said the dispatch center is on track to spend most, if not all, of the $327,000 planned in overtime before the fiscal year ends on June 30. Starting salary for full-time dispatchers is roughly $44,800 annually, Malloch said.
“We’ve been struggling with staffing for several years now,” Malloch said. “This is part of a national trend. Dispatch centers across the country are having a difficult time attracting qualified candidates and I know we’ve had a higher turnover rate than we’d like to see.”
The Maine Department of Public Safety undertook a major realignment of its dispatch operations last June, when it closed the Regional Communications Center in Gray because the agency could not keep the center staffed.
Now the regional center in Augusta handles calls and dispatch duties for 35 municipalities, the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office, and eight statewide agencies across four counties, said Cliff Wells, director of emergency communication for the Department of Public Safety.
Wells said the Augusta center is authorized for 33 dispatch employees and he has eight vacancies, although he said he is preparing to offer jobs to a handful of candidates in the coming days.
“We’re in a constant state of bringing (applicants) in,” Wells said. “We keep it moving, and it’s getting better.”
At the Sanford Regional Communications Center, the problem is also acute, said Bill Tower, the director. He is authorized for 22 dispatchers, but is currently down about five positions, he said, which has led to forced overtime shifts almost every week.
“Nationally the burnout rate for dispatchers is five to seven years,” Tower said. “A lot of folks who do it, don’t do it for their whole life. The people that we do hire, the vast majority of those folks we won’t have long term.”
The staffing problems largely mirror hiring difficulties at Maine jails, where relatively low starting pay and a stressful, unusual work environment make it difficult to compete with other employers that do not require weekend and holiday shifts, or for employees to interact with people in crisis.
Under current state law, only sworn law enforcement, corrections officers, firefighters and emergency medical personnel are eligible for special pension plans that allow some to retire after 25 years of service with full benefits, regardless of their age when they retire. State pension plans vary widely and have shifted over time, but other than the public safety personnel groups, most state pension members are eligible to begin receiving benefits between the age of 60 and 65, depending on when they began contributing to their plans.
One dispatcher who plans to testify Monday in support of the pension bill is Jordan Nickerson, 33, from Madison. He has worked for three years at the Somerset County dispatch center, after previously working at Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta. While working with psychiatric patients, Nickerson said, he found a passion for helping people and learned he was skilled at de-escalating tense situations.
He was surprised when he found dispatching work to be as stressful as working with psychiatric patients, even though dispatch work never presents a threat of physical harm. The pace of the work also means that one moment he could be talking someone through performing CPR on a dying family member, and the next moment he might be responding to a benign call for a lost dog or a motorist in distress.
“It’s almost harder when you’re dispatching because you’re exposed to so much and you’re in such a vulnerable position,” Nickerson said. “You listen to people take their last breaths, and you take that stuff home with you. Your hands are shaking you’re so worked up. And then you have to bring it all back down.”