By Connie Paige
Globe Correspondent / January 8, 2009
In keeping with Governor Deval Patrick's recommendation, local public safety officials are proposing a regional emergency communications facility for Essex County as an efficient alternative to individual police and fire dispatch centers.
Supporters say the proposed Essex Regional Emergency Communications Center will allow coordination among police, fire, and medical forces in 13 communities - and more if they choose to join.
"To take this regionalized approach is a good, positive thing for partnerships and municipalities to work together," said Essex County Sheriff Frank G. Cousins Jr., a main mover behind the proposal.
But critics see the center as possibly infringing on local autonomy and draining resources in a time when municipal budgets are strapped for cash.
"I strongly urge - as do an awful lot of police leaders - that this type of program does not go forward," said North Andover Police Chief Richard M. Stanley. "I am in favor of studying it, I am in favor of looking at it, but I want to be shown why it is something that is going to benefit the community."
Stanley said that while the center might prove helpful to firefighters, he does not see the benefits for police. He said he would want to be assured that police would not "lose the personal touch with the residents."
The proposed Essex County center is an joint effort of officials in Beverly, Danvers, Essex, Hamilton, Ipswich, Manchester, Marblehead, Middleton, Methuen, North Andover, Swampscott, Topsfield, and Wenham, and the sheriff's office. It has been in the talking stages for about two years, Cousins said. It would be the second such center in the state; the first is in Berkshire County.
The $6.8 million proposal is competing for state funding with 15 other public safety initiatives, according to Terrel Harris, communications director for the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, which awards the grants. Applicants will be notified whether they have received the money in mid-January, Harris said.
Regional dispatch centers are designed to receive 911 calls from communities, and deploy police, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians as needed to the site of a fire, crime, or disaster. The now-varied channels on which public safety officers receive and send messages would be synchronized into a unified communications system headquartered at the center. In other parts of the country, such as Pennsylvania, emergency services are already handled on the county level.
In Massachusetts, city councils and town meetings must approve the center before communities can join.
Initial funding for the center would come from the state grant and contributions from each participating community. Once the center is operational, the cost to each community should be no more than the current price tag for local dispatchers, and possibly less, Cousins said.