E-911 service facing staffing shortage

PROVIDENCE – The state’s 911 emergency telephone service has not been spared from the lack of adequate staffing that has challenged government agencies statewide, an issue made clear during a meeting held Thursday by the Senate Finance Committee, in which members were provided a briefing by administration and state agency officials on the allocation of the $1.3 billion of American Rescue Plan Act funding to date.

During the hearing, commission member Sen. Frank A. Ciccone III, D-Providence, asked for an update from Department of Administration Director James Thorsen on the progress the department has made on ensuring the Department of Public Safety has enough employees fielding and directing emergency calls, which numbered 498,395 in 2021, a 7% increase from the prior year, according to the latest available report by the Department of Public Safety.

An increase in pay for telecommunicators was approved in December. But Ciccone said more needed to be done.

“Do we know if the increase is competitive with other municipalities and other surrounding states?” Ciccone asked. “From what I hear, we are still losing people as we’re hiring [new employees]. So, we are not gaining.”

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Thorsen said the department has issued a request for proposals from firms who will conduct a comprehensive statewide analysis of pay grades and staffing levels, including the 911 services.

“The entire classification system is up for review … I do know that across every industry and in this labor market there have been issues with retention and with short staffing,” he said. “The challenge associated with that is it means increased labor costs across all of state government.”

In a follow-up conversation Friday, Ciccone said he hoped the data retrieved from the study would be heeded by the General Assembly and not “put on the shelf” as state officials formulate the next fiscal year budget.

Karen Hazard, business manager for Local 808 of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, including E-911 telecommunicators, said the North Scituate facility has been under an increased workload since the implementation of the Emergency Medical Dispatch system last summer, which allows them to provide instructions to callers in the critical time between the call and the arrival of first responders.

The service currently has 27 telecommunicators and receives between 30,000 and 50,000 calls per month, she said. The service was budgeted for 39 full-time employees in the current fiscal year.

“They have ended up taking on more responsibilities,” she said. “What may have been a two- or three-minute call before might now be five or 10.”

As essential workers, 911 employees are frequently forced to work overtime and are often called back into work when off-duty. There are members who are unable to take days off. Overall, there are between 80 and 100 overtime shifts worked monthly.

Replacing retirees, including four in the past month alone, has also been an issue.

“They are called back even if they are on vacation,” Hazard said. “That happens.”

However, Hazard praised the work of Thorsen, who took over as director of administration in 2021.

“I think he is doing his due diligence,” she said.

E-911 workers undergo a rigorous hiring process that includes both technical training and psychological evaluations. The work fielding numerous calls dealing with domestic violence, sexual assault and other people in crisis can be stress inducing, Hazard said, even traumatic.

The process from application submission to hiring could take up to six months, Hazard said, with approximately 2% of applicants ending up employed. Many prospective hires simply drop out and quit.

“People’s lives are in your hands,” she said. “This is what they go through. I just don’t think they have been [properly] recognized.”

Christopher Allen is a PBN staff writer. You may contact him at Allen@PBN.com.