A Board of Representatives review of Stamford’s 911 communication center turned up conflicting accounts of the city’s emergency response.
- There are enough dispatchers to handle all the calls, but the protocol was just changed to add a backup
- There are enough dispatchers, but two positions will be added in the next budget.
- Data supports the city’s minimum staffing levels, but things get so busy that dispatchers skip their breaks
- If dispatchers take breaks, staffing levels can fall short of the minimum one-third of the time
- The five-dispatcher minimum was set 44 years ago but remains in place for most weekly shifts
“Stamford now is the second-largest city in Connecticut. I think we have to increase manpower in the 911 dispatch center,” said city Rep. Jeff Stella, chair of the board’s Public Safety Committee, which called for the review after a resident last month posted on social media that calls to 911 went unanswered.
“I prefer we do it before we have a tragedy.”
Stella and other city representatives invited Public Safety Director Lou DeRubeis and Emergency Communications Director Joe Gaudett to Wednesday night’s committee meeting after a North Stamford resident posted on NextDoor that his wife called 911 twice from the road to report a potentially dangerous downed tree and no one picked up.
Their post drew a response from a 911 dispatcher and officer of UAW Local 2377, which represents dispatchers.
Mike Lockwood, who according to the latest contract is a union vice president, posted that – though there are always two dispatchers to handle calls from police officers and one for fire and EMS – there are at times only two dispatchers to pick up all the calls from the public.
“We are getting inundated and it’s overwhelming,” Lockwood wrote in the post, encouraging citizens to call on city representatives and Mayor Caroline Simmons to increase staffing “because no one seems to listen to us.”
Lockwood’s boss, Gaudett, told representatives at Wednesday’s meeting that he spoke to Lockwood about the post.
“I think his emotions got the best of him … I asked him not to do that again. I asked him to bring his concerns to me,” Gaudett said.
Gaudett told the committee he was hired in 2019 because “for many years” Stamford’s dispatch center had not met the state standard: that 90 percent of all 911 calls are answered within 10 seconds of the first ring.
Now Stamford exceeds the standard, Gaudett said. In October, for example, more than 93 percent of calls were answered within 10 seconds, with an average pickup time of 6 seconds.
Gaudett said he created a staffing “matrix” based on five shifts a day, seven days a week, for a total of 35 shifts.
Gaudett explained that each shift includes two police dispatchers to handle communications for officers on the road, and one fire dispatcher who also serves EMS personnel. Those three slots are constant for all shifts.
The remaining slots are filled by “call-takers” who answer 911 calls from the public, Gaudett said. He assigned a minimum of two call-takers for 25 of the weekly shifts, and at least three for the 10 busier shifts.
So, with the police and fire dispatchers, each shift has a minimum of either five or six dispatchers “depending on hour of the day and day of the week,” Gaudett said.
“Eight people are scheduled to come to work, so I can have as many as eight” on a shift, Gaudett told the committee. “Some days it can go down to five or less before I have to call someone in” to reach the minimum staffing requirement.
City Rep. David Watkins had a question about breaks.
“What percent of time during a shift are the call-takers off the phone for lunch or dinner, or personal time?” Watkins asked.
Under the contract with Local 2377, dispatchers get two 15-minute breaks and a half-hour meal break, Gaudett said.
So, if three call-takers each get a total of an hour off during an eight-hour shift, for three hours a shift only two call-takers are working, Watkins said.
“That means that, for more than a third of that shift, our actual manpower is not what we think it is,” Watkins said.
But, Gaudett said, among dispatchers, breaks “are hardly ever taken.”
That’s not good, said Stella, a retired New York Police Department officer.
According to the American Addiction Centers, emergency dispatchers’ exposure to stress and trauma is the same as other first responders and can lead to serious mental-health issues.
“Not having breaks during a shift concerns me,” Stella said. “And to meet the minimum staff level they might be required to work another shift and repeat the same cycle. That tells me there’s something wrong with the system.”
In 2014, 30 dispatchers from Local 2377, including Lockwood, wrote a letter to city representatives saying minimum staffing had been decreased to five dispatchers per shift, a level set in 1978. They asked for help in restoring the minimum to six dispatchers seven days a week on all shifts, which it was for a time before 2009.
“The job is stressful enough without having to be understaffed,” the dispatchers wrote in 2014. “Sometimes you have to hold off on taking your break for several hours just so you can help your fellow employee by not leaving them alone during a busy period.”
On the stormy November night that North Stamford resident Greg Kalt and his wife called 911 three times before someone picked up, the two police dispatchers and one fire dispatcher were on duty along with three call-takers, DeRubeis, the public safety director, told the committee Wednesday.
One of the call-takers was on a bathroom break, another was on a complicated call about a missing 14-year-old, and the remaining call-taker received two 911 calls at the same time, including the one from the Galts.
According to DeRubeis, the Galts, who were in their car, stayed on the line for 41 seconds before hanging up the first time, and 53 seconds the second time.
The Galts let the phone ring four and five times longer than the state standard of answering 911 calls within 10 seconds.
“This type of situation is unusual,” DeRubeis said. “There were no operational or logistical issues; it was just more calls than were able to be answered at that particular time.”
Nonetheless, changes are underway, Gaudett said. Now the motor vehicles dispatcher, who checks license plates for police officers who radio in from the streets, is a back-up for call-takers when staffing is at minimum, Gaudett said.
The 911 center has 29 full-time dispatchers with two vacancies, which will be filled, he said.
Beyond that, “we have proposed two new dispatcher positions that we hope the mayor will add to her budget,” Gaudett said.
Simmons has agreed to include the positions in her 2023-24 budget, her special assistant, Lauren Meyer, said Thursday.
Gaudett said he is working on ways to reduce the volume of non-emergency calls that come into the 911 center, including those from the police department’s routine number, 203-977-4444.
“I call them administrative calls. We answer 100,000 of those a year,” Gaudett said. “They range from, ‘What time does the parade start?’ to ‘When will my leaves get picked up?’ to ‘What’s the number for the jail?’ to ‘How do I get a police report?’ Those calls are more than half of what we do.”
DeRubeis said his office is creating a new position, lead dispatcher, to replace police supervisors in the 911 center. Two lead dispatchers will replace the police supervisor on each shift, DeRubeis said. Unlike the supervisors, the lead dispatchers will be trained to take 911 calls, he said. The plan is to hire nine lead dispatchers within a year, DeRubeis said.
“We are thinking in a way we have not in the past,” he told the committee.
Asked whether the intended hires show that the 911 center is, in fact, understaffed, Meyer said no.
“This is adding to the minimum staffing levels that are already in place in order to maintain the state standard,” she said.