July 17, 2009 Gloucester Daily Times Article

Chiefs backing regional dispatch

By Patrick Anderson
Staff Writer

Gloucester's police and fire chiefs have endorsed outsourcing the city's emergency dispatch to a regional Essex County 911 center being planned for Middleton.

A week after they traveled to Lackawanna County, Pa., to visit a call center similar to what's being drawn up here, fire Chief Phil Dench and police Chief Michael Lane this week both came out strongly in support of the plan, already favored by Mayor Carolyn Kirk.

"If they make a facility here similar to what they have done down there, it should work," Lane said. "I found it very professional, very impressive."

Appointed interim chief in May after the retirement of John Beaudette, Lane had initially expressed reservations about joining the regional dispatch with the caveat that he hadn't yet had the opportunity to be briefed or to study it.

But after witnessing the training, equipment and technology utilized in the Pennsylvania center, and talking with police chiefs from communities using its services, Lane said he was convinced the idea could work for Gloucester.

Testimonials from the police chief in Scranton, Pa., carried particular weight.

"If it can work in Scranton, which has 70,000 people, it can work in Gloucester with 30,000 people," Lane said. "It will take some getting used to a regionalization model, but I see it as the wave of the future."

Dench, who had reserved judgement on the regional dispatch plan until the trip, told the Times the resources of a regional center would give the city capabilities it would never be able to equal.

"We would get a state-of-the-art facility with state of the art equipment and emergency medical dispatch personnel that the city would never be able to afford," said Dench, who is also serving in an interim capacity. "We would never be able to have that quality of service."

The regional center would be operated out of the Essex County Sheriff's office and built adjacent to Middleton Jail using state grant money. Each participating community would be billed annually to pay for the center's operations based on population, a cost now estimated at $16.26 per capita.

In Gloucester, all emergency calls now come to the dispatch center in the Police Department, where three officers are on duty at all times. If the call requires fire or emergency medical response, the dispatchers then call the Fire Department dispatch.

In the regional model being proposed, there would be 12 dispatchers on duty, some fielding calls and others waiting to coordinate a response, Joseph McGowan, a lawyer for the sheriff's office, told the City Council in a briefing on the plan Tuesday.

When a call comes in, the call-taker enters information into a computer, which pops up on the screen of another dispatcher, who can then contact police officers and firefighters to direct their response while the caller is still on the phone.

The regional dispatchers use advanced mapping software and are given a set of standard operating procedures written by the departments in each community, so the response is coordinated according to local guidelines.

While regionalization of municipal services, including 911 dispatch, has been touted as a potential cost-savings across the state, both of Gloucester's chiefs said the biggest potential benefit for the city is an improvement in service — including a likely drop in emergency response times.

The precise financial implications of joining the regional dispatch have not been calculated, but the estimated $490,000 annual assessment to the city would be at least partially offset by freeing up six officers, who now have to stay in the dispatch, to get back on the street.

Since this years's budget cutting, the Gloucester Police Department has been at its lowest manpower level in decades and is looking for ways to hire more officers, each costing around $50,000 in salary and benefits annually.

The city would also save a substantial amount of money over time on not having to operate, repair and upgrade its dispatch equipment.

The trip to Lackawanna County was organized by state Sen. Bruce Tarr, who attended, along with the chiefs and other members of their departments.

Members of the Gloucester contingent paid their own way down to Pennsylvania, but are being reimbursed for their costs by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional planning cooperative, Tarr said.

Lackawanna County has operated under a regional dispatch model for decades and opened the new facility toured by the Gloucester group two years ago. The center is run by Thomas Dubas, the man hired to be the project manager of the Essex County facility.

The Lackawanna call center serves 43 municipalities.

So far, 12 communities in Essex County, including Manchester and Essex, are at some point in the process of approving their participation in the regional 911 center. Rockport is not part of the group.

Gloucester, which two years ago bowed out of the original group looking to join the regional dispatch out of concerns over start-up costs, has been told that if it wants to get back in it can.

The City Council was briefed on the regional dispatch proposal Tuesday and could deliberate on a vote soon, pending a proposal from the mayor's office.

Patrick Anderson can be reached at panderson@gloucestertimes.com