By Susan Gonsalves, Contributing Writer
SOUTHBOROUGH – The Southborough public safety department needs to replace a dispatcher who resigned and also add a fifth person to its roster in order to address a staffing shortfall, said Police Chief Kenneth Paulhus at a Nov. 3 Select Board meeting.
The chief talked about a letter he sent to the Select Board that highlighted that request.
“We’re teetering in an emergency situation if something comes out of the blue, and I don’t have people to fill those positions,” he said.
Paulhus explained that a fifth dispatcher went beyond what was budgeted for this year and would carry over in subsequent budgets. The salary for this position would be around $32,000. With benefits, the cost would total approximately $40,000.
He said having part-timers filling in to cover 24-hour/seven-day-a-week shifts no longer works. Part-time dispatchers have other jobs and are not always available. Plus, they cannot be mandated to fill openings, he said. Therefore, overtime costs are running high and the situation is heightened by people having time off for sickness, vacations, holidays, etc.
“It’s leaving public safety, both police and fire, vulnerable to a shortage of trained and qualified personnel,” Paulhus said.
He noted it takes 300 to 400 hours of specialized training to get a full-time or part-time telecommunications officer certified and trained “to master both departments.”
In the letter, he said the communications officer responds to all emergency calls, including police, fire, EMS, department of public works and animal control as well as non-emergency calls to the police department.
The officer also checks prison cells when occupied, per suicide prevention guidelines, he wrote.
The shortfall is leaving 10 shifts per month, or 120 shifts per year, uncovered.
“If you do the math, it just doesn’t work,” Paulhus said. “We’re playing with a dangerous situation if we don’t boost our manpower.”
Paulhus added that surrounding towns have more full-time dispatchers. Northborough has seven while Ashland and Hopkinton both have eight, he said. Westborough has nine.
Select Board member Martin Healey questioned why this matter was not brought forward earlier, especially since there was a Town Meeting on Nov. 1.
Healey said he was not prepared to approve the position until he received a detailed written breakdown of shifts showing both four dispatchers and five. He also wanted to hear about the steps that would be taken if the fifth position is not approved.
“The timing is less than ideal,” he said, reiterating that these sorts of requests appear on the Town Meeting warrant.
Healey also noted the town is talking about regionalizing its dispatch services. He said that the department should find a way to “bridge its needs” while Southborough determines whether or not to adopt such a regionalized option.
Paulhus said a regional dispatch, if approved, would take two years or more to set up and does not resolve the current shortfall.
Select Board member Andrew Dennington urged the chief to look within his budget to find areas to fund the position. He also expressed disappointment that the matter was being brought up on Nov. 3.
The chief said there is “no wiggle room,” in his budget. Instead, he said he would look at an existing grant to see if it could be used to offset some of the costs.
Advisory Committee Chair Kathy Cook said that reserve funds are being depleted and should not be used for this purpose. The town still has the winter to get through, which is a time when emergencies sometimes arise, she said.
Fire Chief Steven Achilles said best practices call for two dispatchers at all times. He echoed the police chief’s sentiment about the part-time reserve being inadequate, and he said he wanted to revisit his budget before commenting further.
Paulhus also said he is willing to use money that the department gets each year from Harvard University if possible. Cook said those funds total $12,500 each for the police and fire departments. Finding the remaining funding is the next step.
Select Board Chair Lisa Braccio said the request would be re-visited at a future meeting.