As a 911 dispatcher in Cambridge, Mary Wright has heard it all: A woman threatening suicide, a man overdosing, domestic violence, gruesome car accidents.
At work, just answering the phone can be draining, she said, but now shifts are getting longer, stretching her and her co-workers to a breaking point. Her call center mirrors others around the state: It is low on staffing and relies heavily on overworked employees taking overtime shifts to keep the operation afloat.
“It’s exhausting. Mentally, physically — it’s exhausting,” Wright told the Globe, after canceling an interview once because she had to cover an overtime shift. She went into work at 11 p.m. the night before and worked until 1 p.m.
Dispatcher and call-taker staffing levels plunged during the pandemic and have been slow to rebound, leading to a vicious cycle, workers say, of overwork and burnout for a key part of the public safety apparatus in Cambridge, Boston, and many of the 200-plus call centers in the state.
There’s an oft-cited statistic from two industry surveys that in recent years, particularly post-pandemic, dispatchers have had an annual attrition rate around 30 percent, and, because of that, staffing levels are down by a similar percentage. While the severity of the situation varies department to department, it’s universally agreed that the industry faces challenges and has to innovate — even if it means normalizing remote work or building more regional call centers. Otherwise, workers like Wright will continue to face forced overtime.
“Going to work, you never feel like you’re going to go home at the end of your scheduled shift,” Wright said.
Last month, Wright’s union, the Teamsters Local 25, sent a letter to city councilors and the mayor complaining of a “very serious staffing shortage” that is approaching the point where it is hurting public safety.
“Forced overtime and staffing shortages all contribute to burnout, absenteeism and turnover,” the letter said.
Cambridge 911 director Christina Giacobbe said she’s optimistic that eight new hires — a roughly 33 percent increase from the current staff — will ease the burden.
“I’m confident that by August we’re going to start to see some real improvement,” she said.
Giacobbe, a former dispatcher, conceded the current working conditions are challenging, but said that through forced overtime, the center is meeting minimum staffing requirements and is not dropping calls.
Meanwhile, in Boston staffing levels are also in crisis. Anthony Landry, a former Boston dispatcher and the political director for the SEIU 888 union that represents the 911 center employees, said the city should have 40 dispatchers and 65 call takers, but instead has closer to 30 and 40, respectively. When you dial 911 in Boston, you talk to a call taker, who then relays the information to a dispatcher, who contacts the appropriate emergency services.
“Whatever territory lies outside of exhausted and fatigued, that’s where they’re at,” Landry said.
Last year, the city released an audit it had commissioned from Mission Critical Partners, a firm that focuses on 911 call centers, that stated: “Staffing is a pressing issue and will only continue to worsen unless concerted efforts are made.”
“Unfortunately, this is typical,” report project manager Bonnie Maney said in a recent interview. “Staffing in the 911 centers is at crisis.”
The 423-page report faulted the department’s working conditions, which result in “excessive mandatory overtime per person,” and stated that the pandemic did “further exacerbate some of the long-standing issues and further degraded low morale.”
Maney said that Boston made several changes following the report that she believes could help attract and retain workers, including pay raises, reclassifying call center workers as first responders for the purpose of better retirement benefits, and passing a three-year waiver of the city’s residency requirement.
“This is a big ship and it’s taking some time to turn around,” Maney said.
In response to questions at a recent City Council meeting, Boston Police Commissioner Michael Cox touted last year’s pay raises for the center and said the Police Department is working to better improve conditions there.
“We need to attract people to all parts of our job,” Cox said, referring to the department and call center collectively. “I will do all I can to continue to work with the people of 911 ... to make sure they have the services they need.”
These issues also plague suburban and rural parts of the state, said Erin Hastings, head of the Massachusetts Communications Supervisors Association, which represents about 90 call centers.
“Everybody’s short — everybody’s working overtime,” said Hastings, a longtime dispatcher who is now a 911 center executive in the Springfield area.
Despite the issues, state officials say calls have not been dropped.
“Even though we have a shortage in this Commonwealth, all 911 calls are being answered,” said Frank Pozniak, executive director of the Massachusetts 911 Department.
He said there are always contingencies in place. For example, each call center is assigned another to back it up if it’s overwhelmed on a given day.
He said the state has been deploying what it calls the 60-member Telecommunication Emergency Response Team, which is meant to jump in and help a center when staffing levels become critical. The need for that, he said, has increased over the past few years as the attrition rate has gone up.
Pozniak said one reason why this industry has a hard time attracting and retaining workers is the lack of a remote-work option.
“With respect to 911, it’s a 24/7 job, and you have to be there,” Pozniak said. “In this world, we’ve gone remote in a lot of areas, but you can’t do it remotely.”
But that should be something the state looks at “down the road,” he said.
“I think the technology is there,” he said, noting that some other cities around the country did it during the pandemic, but that Massachusetts has a different type of system that hasn’t been tried yet for remote work.
Currently, the state is pushing regionalization, urging smaller centers to combine in the name of staffing and operating efficiencies.
Massachusetts currently has 211 call centers, and while Pozniak declined to say what he sees as an ideal number, the hope is to get below 200 in the coming years, down from 268 in the late 2000s. He highlighted the fact that 31 right now are regional.
One example is the center Hastings runs: WESTCOMM Regional Dispatch, which covers Chicopee and several surrounding communities. She said the center is almost fully staffed.
“We’re doing OK,” she said, adding that because it’s a larger organization, the center had flexibility during the pandemic to shift the way it does scheduling and try to stop the burden from falling as heavily on individual dispatchers.
She said changes like Boston’s that include reclassifying dispatchers as first responders for retirement purposes can help cut down on the job’s characteristic high turnover.
“We need to change the culture, the public awareness, the laws that this isn’t just secretarial,” she said. “It’s not — it’s a career.”