AUGUSTA — Maine’s public safety commissioner pushed back forcefully Thursday against concerns that people in an emergency could be at risk amid a staffing shortage at the regional dispatch center, saying it’s “reckless” and “damn right not true” even as more than half of the positions there remain vacant.

Commissioner John Morris acknowledged a shortage of dispatchers at the state’s regional communications center in Augusta, but he said that lack of workers is not compromising the safety of Maine residents or emergency workers. The center handles most 911 calls for the central and southern portion of the state.

“Absolutely nobody is in danger. We won’t allow that to happen,” Morris said in an interview at his office, which shares a building with the state’s Augusta Regional Communications Center. “We are absolutely concerned about this. Dispatchers are the heartbeat of public safety. They are so valuable to the well-being of the community and law enforcement, and we will not jeopardize anybody’s safety. For somebody to say we are reckless is not helpful and damn right not true.”

Public Safety Commissioner John Morris speaks at his Augusta office on Thursday. He said complaints that a shortage of dispatchers could threaten public safety are “reckless, not helpful and damn right not true.”

The commissioner was responding to concern expressed recently by leaders of the union that represents state dispatchers that a staff shortage at the Augusta dispatch center has the staff overworked and stressed out and could put the safety of the public at risk because of potentially delayed responses to calls for help.

During an interview at the Augusta Regional Communications Center, Morris acknowledged the state is having difficulty filling dispatcher positions in Augusta. The Augusta dispatch center has a total of 35 positions; Morris said 14 of them are filled, two supervisors also perform dispatching duties, and another full-time dispatcher is starting Monday. He said that’s not ideal and said it has been difficult to attract workers to the Augusta center because of an overall lack of availability in the local labor market.

But the commissioner said steps have been taken, and will continue to be, to ensure the dispatch center is staffed adequately at all times, that no calls for help go unanswered, and that the safety of residents and first responders who rely on dispatchers for help in emergency situations is not compromised.

Alec Maybarduk, executive director of Maine State Employees Association, Local 1989 of the Service Employees International Union, said earlier this week only 12 dispatchers work at the state’s Augusta dispatch center, where there are 35 positions, leaving more than half the positions vacant. He said the lack of workers forces the remaining dispatchers there to work extra hours in an already stressful job, putting the safety of the public at risk.

The two sides met Tuesday to discuss issues related to the closure, last month, of a similar state dispatch center in Gray, with the work performed by dispatchers there largely being moved to the Augusta dispatch center. But Maybarduk said state officials continue to refuse to discuss the larger issue of recruiting and retaining workers at the Augusta facility to address the shortage of workers there.

Cliff Wells, director of emergency communications for the state Department of Public Safety, said the Augusta dispatch center typically has six dispatchers on a shift. He said that’s adequate, but having seven or eight on per shift would be better.

“Being this far away from adequate staffing could have a very tragic impact on the safety of both the people of Maine and Mainers who are first responders and risking their lives for us every single day,” Maybarduk said.

Maybarduk said the union has asked to meet with the state to negotiate a solution to recruitment and retention problems and pleaded with state officials to form a plan to address the shortage of workers and relieve the pressure on dispatchers, but the state has not done so.

However, he said the state has taken action to address the problem and keep the public protected, including creating several new part-time emergency positions, including positions filled by certified dispatchers who work at other dispatch centers but work at the Augusta center part time, two state troopers assigned to “light duty” who take non-emergency calls to help ease the load on trained dispatchers, and some retired dispatchers who have come back to work part time to help shoulder the burden.

Cliff Wells, director of emergency communications for the state Department of Public Safety, said the Augusta dispatch center typically has six dispatchers on a shift. He said that’s adequate, but having seven or eight on per shift would be better.

A Department of Public Safety dispatcher relays a call from her console Thursday at the Augusta agency. Only 14 dispatchers are handling emergency calls with a volume that previously has been handled by 35 dispatchers.

Morris said the state also is sending incoming calls — such as “silver alert” calls reporting a senior citizen in missing— that used to go to Augusta to other state dispatch centers in Bangor and Houlton, where finding enough staff members hasn’t been a problem, and it also has arrangements with local dispatch centers to take emergency calls when the state dispatch center in Augusta is overloaded with calls for help.

“Other local centers, in order to help their brothers and sisters, now take some of those (emergency) calls if we’re overloaded,” Morris said. “There are a number of things we’ve done to help.”

He criticized Maybarduk and said union officials haven’t been team players working to address the problem. He said in talks, union officials have said the way to attract and keep more workers is to raise their pay. But he said the union hasn’t followed either of the processes he said would be needed for dispatchers to get a raise, which would be either negotiating for one as part of contract talks, or seeking state legislation, as the leaders of some other law enforcement entities in Maine have done.

A Department of Public Safety dispatcher removes a headset while answering 911 calls Thursday at the Augusta agency. Only 14 dispatchers are handling emergency calls with a volume that previously has been handled by 35 dispatchers.

Maybarduk said state officials have declined to discuss increasing dispatchers’ pay. He said state officials told the union this week the only forum in which the state would discuss that and other recruitment and retention issues would be in a special recruitment and retention committee, which would be made up of representatives of the state and the union. He said the union plans to request that such a committee be formed but doesn’t want to wait for what could be a long process. He said the union requested such a committee be formed in 2014, and the group met once but didn’t take any action. He said the state could act now to negotiate better pay to keep and retain dispatchers.

“We specifically asked if they’d be supportive of advancing the issues of pay discrepancies through that committee, but (the state) did not commit to that,” Maybarduk said. “We’ll participate and are going to request forming that committee in short order. But we think they can and should act immediately on it. We hope if the committee is going to be the process by which to do this, they do it very quickly before a tragedy results from overworked and stressful working conditions.”

Morris said the state has plans to address the worker shortage but the union hasn’t expressed interest in those plans. He said the state would welcome the union’s help in addressing the problem, but has to be open to solutions other than “throwing more money” at the problem.

Morris speculated the union went public with the issue, including by distributing a flyer outside the dispatch center warning that dispatchers there were stressed out and overworked because of having to work additional hours and shifts, because the union wants to make itself look important to keep workers paying their dues.

Maybarduk said the union seeks action from the state because it is concerned that the lack of workers will result in an overstressed staff and longer response times in situations when every second counts.

Morris doesn’t dispute the importance of dispatchers in protecting the people and public safety workers of Maine, but he does dispute the union’s claims the state doesn’t have a plan to address the shortage of workers in Augusta. He said efforts to fill the positions include going to job fairs and posting job openings online.

He said those efforts are paying off, and that eight job candidates for the Augusta dispatch center are scheduled to be interviewed next week. However, he said filling such high-skill positions is even harder than filling other skilled positions in the tight labor market, because to be hired as public safety dispatchers candidates, have to pass a polygraph examination and a state public safety criminal background check. And dispatchers, especially when they are new to the job, are likely to be required to work nights, weekends and holidays, because dispatch centers are 24-7, 365-days-a-year operations.

Morris said dispatcher pay at the Augusta communications center starts at $17.85 an hour, which equates to about $37,000 a year. He said a long-serving dispatcher can make about $50,000 a year.

He said the state hasn’t had problems filling dispatch positions in Houlton and Bangor, where labor markets are not as tight. The Gray dispatch center closed June 13 because of the difficulty of hiring dispatchers to work there.

Steve McCausland, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety, said recruiting workers in Gray was difficult, even more so than in Augusta, because of the still tighter labor market there. He said other southern Maine dispatch centers pay more than the state does, so the state lost dispatchers to other centers.

A petition signed by all of the Augusta 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 understaffing 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 state’s three dispatch 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.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

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