Dearth of dispatchers forces Southampton to seek help from Easthampton

Southampton Town Hall  angle

Southampton Town Hall angle

By MADDIE FABIAN

Staff Writer

Published: 10-15-2023 2:00 PM

SOUTHAMPTON — As Southampton’s dispatch services transfer to Easthampton’s Public Safety Communications Center, residents who enter the lobby of the Southampton Police Station will notice a few changes, namely a lack of in-person staff at times.

Due to significant staffing shortages in the Southampton Police Department’s dispatch center, Easthampton has begun dispatching Southampton police, fire and EMS resources.

“It’s getting harder and harder to fill these positions, and I think a lot of it has to do with today’s workforce culture changing,” Southampton Police Chief Ian Illingsworth said. “It takes a very qualified person to be a public safety dispatcher. You have to be able to multitask well and also keep calm in very dire situations ... And dispatchers are required to be trained in emergency medical dispatch.”

“We found ourselves very understaffed, and our recruitment efforts just were not working, and as a result we had to take some action,” said Illingworth.

As of last Thursday at 11 a.m., all calls to Southampton Police and Fire Department phone lines, which remain the same number, reach a “phone tree” that gives the caller two options: direct transfer to an Easthampton Public Safety dispatcher, or the option to leave a message. On-duty officers will check voicemail boxes regularly.

Upon receiving a 911 call, the Easthampton Communications department, housed in the Public Safety Complex at 32 Payson Ave., now dispatches Southampton’s on-duty personnel through radio communications.

For Southampton residents, Illingsworth said, the transition will be mostly “unnoticeable,” and that “there will not be any impact on public safety.”

Sgt. Chad Alexander in East hampton similarly said, “It won’t affect our services at all.”

Staffing shortages

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Illingsworth said that at full staff, the dispatch center has four full-time and six part-time dispatchers. The department was headed toward having just one full-time dispatcher, he said.

“We were trying to avoid it, but it just seems like the reality of staffing and getting qualified people is getting harder and harder, no matter whatever the profession,” said Christine Fowles, chair of the Southampton Select Board. “And it’s not just the police; I think it applies in a lot of places.”

A report by the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch found that between December 2022 and January 2023, the average vacancy rate at public safety communications centers was 25%, meaning that, on average, one in four jobs are open at 911 call centers.

“There’s already a lot of towns that are regionalizing, and cities are even regionalizing,” Illingsworth said, adding that one example is the WESTCOMM Regional Dispatch serving Chicopee, Longmeadow, Monsoon, East Longmeadow and Ware.

“I think that’s ultimately going to be the trend with this,” he said.

During a short transitional period, Southampton will keep a dispatcher on duty during certain hours of the day.

“We’ll staff our lobby or our dispatch center to kind of work out anything that we didn’t consider or think about,” said Illingsworth. “It’s a safety net, if you will, for us to make sure that all bases are covered before we go completely dark.

He added, “I want to recognize our dispatchers who ... realize that this dispatch center is closing in Southampton and they are still here working, dedicated to making sure that this transition goes through seamlessly,” Illingsworth said. “I have an outstanding professional dispatch staff and they’re going to sorely be missed.”

Right now, Easthampton has nine full-time and one part-time dispatchers. Two dispatchers work at a time, with the occasional third dispatcher working for certain days, hours or events.

“The goal down the road would be to staff three per shift,” Alexander said. “The most important thing is public safety and making sure that there’s no lapse in response times.”

Already, the two communities have a working relationship where they communicate and help one another via radio.

“In that sense, it’s not going to be a huge change,” Alexander said. “It’s just going to be the added work for our dispatchers. … It’s not like our police department will be picking up any extra calls for service”

As for more visible changes in Southampton, the Police Department’s lobby will remain unlocked, but unstaffed depending on the time.

With no dispatchers in the lobby, two remote options for communicating directly with a dispatcher will be available: a telephone that connects directly to the dispatchers, and a video intercom system.

The lobby also contains a secure lockbox, checked several times a day, for papers, forms and letters. Frequently requested documents, like crash reporting forms and vacation request forms, can also be found in the lobby, and can be filled out and submitted in the lockbox.

In addition, the kiosk box inside the library is still available for prescription medication drop-off.

As part of the new changes, the Southampton dispatch center will no longer issue keys to public buildings, and instead, building owners will be responsible for handing out keys.

In the long-term, Alexander and Illingsworth said regionalizing the two town’s dispatch services will open up grant opportunities in the future.

“If you’re a dispatch center and you meet the standard of a regional emergency dispatch center, the state will often offer incentives to include grants and money,” said Illingsworth. “Obviously, the main goal is public safety, but then the secondary goal is to have Easthampton become a ... regional emergency communication center.”

Maddie Fabian can be reached at mfabian@gazettenet.com.