AUGUSTA — The number of dispatchers at the state’s public safety dispatch center in Augusta is less than half of full staffing, forcing dispatchers to work long hours in an already stressful job and potentially compromising public safety, according to the union representing the employees.

State employee union leaders said Monday that the dispatch center in Augusta, which also handles emergency calls for the southern portion of the state, is down to only 12 dispatchers, out of 35 positions allocated to the center.

Alec Maybarduk, the new executive director of Maine State Employees Association, Local 1989 of the Service Employees International Union, said with just 12 dispatchers, staffing at the regional call center is down below even the 15 dispatchers he said the state Department of Public Safety has determined should be the minimum number of dispatchers working at the center each day.

Maybarduk said he was not aware of any specific incidents in which a response by a public safety agency was delayed due to the shortage of staff at the dispatch center, but said the union is concerned public safety could be compromised.

“When you call 911 you expect to get a response on the line in very short order. Our fear is these kinds of staffing levels are insufficient for the people of Maine,” Maybarduk said. “It’s a big stressor for employees, they fear there could be a bad outcome.”

A petition signed by all of the center’s dispatchers, submitted by the union last week, says they are “deeply concerned about the failure of (the dispatch center) to recruit and retain staff,” they have seen no plan to address the issue, and the under-staffing has caused them stress and, in turn, they can’t recover from that stress because they cannot get sufficient time off.

The state has three dispatch centers, in Augusta, Bangor and Houlton. The centers, according to the Consolidated Communications Bureau’s website, provide emergency dispatch services for police, fire and emergency medical services, and dispatching services for state police, wardens, fire marshals and for dozens of fire, rescue, police and ambulance services across the state. The website notes the bureau “has openings on a regular basis for dispatchers at its three” regional communications centers, and provides links to job opening listings.

A flier union leaders distributed outside the Augusta dispatch center last week states the dispatchers respond to more than 50,000 calls a year.

“With only half the needed staff, dispatchers are constantly forced to work additional hours/shifts,” the flier states. “The result is over-stressed staff and longer response times when every second counts.”

Maybarduk said they hope to prevent problems by taking action and getting the state to come up with a plan to address the situation.

“When we’ve gotten there, it’s far too late,” he said of the staffing shortage potentially endangering the public. “We hope to get ahead of those types of problems immediately, before any member of the public is hurt in the process.”

Reached by phone late Monday, Cliff Wells, director of emergency communications for the state Department of Public Safety, said he didn’t have time to discuss the matter but could talk about it later.

Maybarduk said the union and state officials planned to meet Tuesday to discuss the issue. He said the union has reached out to state management previously to seek to negotiate a solution to the recruitment and retention issues but the state did not respond with a plan to get the center back to adequate staffing.

“The general message from the department has been they don’t see this as a crisis and don’t seem to feel a lot of urgency to fill these positions,” Maybarduk said. “We hope they reconsider that and put together a solid plan.”

Maybarduk said major reasons the dispatch center can’t attract or keep enough dispatchers is the state pays less than other dispatch centers, and the shortage of staff, and other workplace issues such as unpredictable schedules, extensive overtime, and difficulty getting days off, make the Augusta facility a stressful place to work. He said state job postings list the starting pay for a dispatcher at $15.48 an hour. He said Sagadahoc County has posted starting dispatcher jobs at about 90 cents more per hour for its dispatch center in Bath.

The issue arose about the same time the state closed a dispatch center in Gray last month, moving the calls answered by dispatchers there to the Augusta facility. Gray dispatchers could have moved to the Augusta facility, but union officials said only three of the 12 dispatchers there made the move.

Wells told the Sun Journal in May the Gray dispatch center, at the state police barracks, was closed and the work moved to Augusta because of staffing shortages and the difficulty of attracting workers to the jobs in Gray. He said then the center had gradually lost some of its dispatchers to county and local dispatch centers because the state’s pay range wasn’t competitive with local and regional alternatives.

Angela MacWhinnie, director of organizing and field operations for MSEA-SEIU Local 1989, said dispatchers who have left the dispatch center in Augusta have consistently said the workload in Augusta is so high it’s stressful keeping up with the work answering public safety calls, workplace dynamics are “unsustainable,” and they were getting job offers at other facilities.

The union has filed a complaint with the Maine Labor Relations Board, alleging the state has violated its obligation to bargain in good faith by making denigrating and misleading statements about the union and has illegally sought to intimidate staff.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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