PEABODY — The city has approved a new safety and security director position to help coordinate emergency responses, a move that was spurred by a scare at St. John’s Prep last month.
This role and the city ordinance that creates it was approved in a 10-1 vote by the City Council at its special meeting on June 20, but won’t be filled or funded until Fiscal Year 2025.
The person hired to fill the job will “perform a variety of administrative safety and security tasks, implement and oversee overall security policy and standards to ensure the physical safety of employees, residents, patrons, facilities and assets under the supervision of the mayor,” according to the ordinance.
This position will oversee five to 10 existing part-time safety specialists and greeters at City Hall and other municipal sites, and help coordinate emergency preparedness training. It will also be a liaison to the police and fire departments in creating and implementing a safety program for the city and schools, according to the ordinance.
“This position allows us to be more proactive through training, through coming together, through better communication,” Mayor Ted Bettencourt told councilors. “I think we’re able to tackle more things and be more in front of things rather than reactive in risk assessment, identifying our weaknesses, filling gaps and filling problems.”
Bettencourt saw reason to create the position following an active shooter hoax at St. John’s Prep in Danvers on May 22, he said.
That day, Danvers police received a call that a man armed with a gun was inside a bathroom on the school’s campus. Several Danvers police officers investigated the bathroom, and upon exiting it, one officer accidentally shot his gun into the floor by his foot, Danvers officials later revealed.
Not knowing the source of the shot, the sound of gunfire drew a much larger police response and sent students and staff into a frenzy, with some students fleeing into a nearby neighborhood and even onto I-95 by foot.
Bettencourt told councilors the event rattled him more than anything else in his 12 years as mayor. That’s why he wanted to get approval for the position now instead of when it’s time to present the FY25 budget, he said.
“Seeing how things unfolded there, that definitely caused me to look at our own operations and to assess our own gaps or risks where they may be in the city,” Bettencourt said in an interview with The Salem News. “Thankfully, that ended up being something that was not a tragedy, but certainly something scary and something that rattled me not only as a mayor, but more importantly as a father.”
Councilor at-Large Anne Manning-Martin asked if the new position was a “duplicate position,” since police and fire officials already coordinate emergency positions with city officials and have a safety presence in local schools.
“I do believe that we need a central person to kind of oversee the operations, really work on communication and really work on our overall assessment,” Bettencourt replied at the June 20 meeting.
Bettencourt told The Salem News that he hopes Keith Bloom will fill the new role, which would absorb Bloom’s current duties as City Hall security director and bump his pay from about $80,000 to $90,000 — a cost that will be split evenly between the school and city budget if his appointment is approved by the City Council next year.
Bloom’s salary has been funded through American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money since the city created his current director of security position during the pandemic. That funding source will dry up for Peabody by FY25.
Bettencourt noted that Bloom’s prior experiences make him a prime candidate for the new role.
Bloom is a former Essex County correctional officer and has a 30-year career in working for his own safety and security business and for a number of companies, Bettencourt said.
While employed by the city, Bloom has been involved in trainings for active shooter responses and other emergency situations in city buildings, and worked to add 31 new cameras to municipal properties, the mayor said.
Bloom also helped conduct safety assessments of city schools and secure a $60,000 Stop School Violence Grant, and will work with former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, who oversaw the Boston Marathon bombing response in 2013 and will be a consultant for the city in its emergency management plans for schools, Bettencourt said.
Superintendent Josh Vadala wrote the council a letter of support for the new role Bloom could fill, praising Bloom’s work with the school system so far and noting that school safety concerns have increased significantly.
Manning-Martin was the only councilor to oppose the position during the June 20 vote.
“It’s duplicative and it’s further fragmenting public safety (departments),” Manning-Martin said at the time. “I truly believe that police and fire have a good handle on crisis management in today’s environment and they do a great job, and I think that they will continue to do that without adding an additional layer.”
Councilor at-Large Tom Rossignoll said the role is an important coordinating position that will help implement safety policies and emergency responses.
“Whether it’s coordinating staff shelter-in-place, when to do that versus when to evacuate, all of these little things need to have a policy in place so that everybody’s on the page and everybody’s reacting and acting in the same manner,” Rossignoll said at the meeting.
Councilor at-Large Jon Turco said he hopes the city will define the direct chain of command when it comes to emergency responses and make sure that Bloom’s contains part-time employees who will not require benefits or affect the city’s pension fund.
“Certainly, if we have a fire, the fire chief is in charge. (If we have a) police action, the police chief would be running the show,” Bettencourt responded. “I see this position as being more of the coordinator, but I think we can come up with a good organizational chart for you.”
Ward 3 Councilor Stephanie Peach said that while she agrees this position and other recently added roles are necessary, including ones under Peabody’s new Social Services Division that will help tackle mental health and addiction issues, the city should look closer at its current positions. Mainly, because the city is struggling to adequately fund its pension fund for retired municipal workers, she said.
“I’m not saying we should lay people off, but developing a plan of how we’re going to pull ourselves out of this pension hole, (since) we’re not going to pull ourselves out of the pension hole by just adding positions, we need to start taking them off the book,” Peach said at the meeting.
Contact Caroline Enos at CEnos@northofboston.com and follow her on Twitter @CarolineEnos.