By Crystal Bozek
Some public safety chiefs in Essex County are crossing their fingers this week as they wait to hear whether they'll receive a $6.8 million state grant to build a long-talked about regional 911 dispatch center.
So far, 13 cities and towns — including North Andover and Methuen — have thrown support behind a proposed center, which would create a one-stop spot for area 911 calls.
The grant will be awarded in mid-January.
The Regional Emergency Communication Center is competing with 15 other public safety initiatives for the $7 million available for the year through the State 911 Department, part of the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.
"It's been a real grassroots effort," said Topsfield Fire Chief Ronald Giovannacci, a member of the project's steering committee. "I think it's the right thing to do, a county-wide dispatch ... like most of the world. California, Pennsylvania ... everyone does this. They think we're crazy."
The plan would call for closing down dispatch centers in each of the participating cities and towns, consolidating them into one operational center.
There are both supporters and critics.
"Not everyone is thrilled about this, but I'm open-minded about it. I'm not sold on the whole thing yet," North Andover fire Chief William Martineau said. "I'm an old-fashioned guy. Show me how it will work."
North Andover police Chief Richard Stanley has been a vocal opponent to the plan, arguing that a regional 911 center would "lose the personal touch with the residents."
"This might work in some small towns, but we are a sizeable community," he said.
If Essex County receives the grant, towns and cities will have to officially sign on. A center could be up and running within 12 to 15 months, and while no site has officially been chosen, state land by the Middleton jail is being eyed.
Being passed over would mean waiting until other grants or funding options become available.
Martineau said he was excited at the prospect of better 911 technology, but still had many questions.
"I'm looking to upgrade the system," Martineau said. "I'm not looking to fire dispatchers, or have this big savings. I'm looking at it as a possible improvement, more training, more up-to-date equipment."
Chiefs have been talking about a regional dispatch center for the past four years. They've brought Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins Jr. on board, who floated the idea with both the state Office of Public Safety and Gov. Deval Patrick, who recommended they apply for the grant.
The idea caught steam this year after lawmakers approved a bill allowing regional centers in July and Patrick set up the State 911 Department. A project manager was hired in May.
Legislation has already been drafted to regulate an agreement between the communities.
According to the grant application, the Essex County center would serve about 220,000 people. There would be 35 full-time dispatchers, five shift supervisors and five administrative personnel.
Supporters say the center would save departments from having to spend hundreds of thousands to update their 911 technology. And with a regional center, it would be easier to share information between departments.
Giovannacci said the regional facility's dispatchers would be emergency medical dispatchers, meaning they would have the training to advise callers on how to deal with medical emergencies until help arrives.
This would be the second center of its kind in the state, with the first being in Berkshire County.
Stanley said many area police leaders are opposed to this type of regionalization effort, however, not seeing any benefit to their policing efforts.
He argued that through training and working with police, dispatchers acquire intimate knowledge of the community which can help save precious time in an emergency — knowledge that someone in an out-of-town dispatch center might not have.
He also raised the issue of simultaneous 911 calls from other communities and questioned which community would get the attention first.
Stanley said if the issue were merely one of cost savings, he would urge public officials to look somewhere else.
"No one has shown me yet that this is going to save money. Where do you draw the line between cost savings and people's safety?"
Staff reporter Jim Patten contributed to this report.