July 21, 2009 Gloucester Daily Times Article

More cops on street a key benefit to regional 911 project

Much of the discussion of the planned Essex County 911 emergency dispatch center, which has now gained the endorsement of both of Gloucester's public safety chiefs, has focused on how much the project can generate in savings for cities, towns and their taxpayers.

But another key aspect that shouts volumes in support of the regionalization effort can be seen in the idea that shifting Gloucester's dispatch services to the regional center planned for Middleton would free up as many as six police officers to work the city's streets, rather than in the department's own dispatch room.

That, indeed, would be a great step for the city — especially as interim police Chief Michael Lane and other city officials look to step up the fight against the drug trade, most notably the heroin trade, which claimed another life 10 days ago when a 22-year-old Gloucester man died of an apparent overdose.

Yes, it's important for cities and towns to consolidate services that may be handled more efficiently. And yes, this regionalized 911 program should bring a savings for the region's taxpayers. But one of the hidden advantages of such a system could well be that officers now tied up serving dispatch duty could be put back doing more classic police work — and bolster police presence in the community.

That's not just important for Gloucester, where, in the wake of budget-related retirements this spring, the department is down some 15 officers from where the roster stood a few years ago. It would also be a benefit for other communities, which have proportionately smaller departments, and which could really get departmental lifts from having a regional dispatch center taking those duties off the individual department's hands.

Dench and Lane say they're now convinced the regionalized service can bring a drop in emergency response times. And, just by its nature, the center could especially coordinate a more focused response when emergency crews crossing multiple communities are needed.

Those are certainly important reasons to get behind this proposal. And cost savings for taxpayers aren't solely dependent on police personnel cuts; Lane and Dench, for example, noted that Gloucester would save a substantial amount of money by not having to operate, repair and upgrade its dispatch equipment.

There are indeed a lot of advantages of this program — which has gotten a green light from Town Meeting voters in Essex, has the endorsement of Town Administrator Wayne Melville in Manchester, and is now getting a push to join from Gloucester's chiefs and Mayor Carolyn Kirk.

But, as officials throughout Essex County learn more and more about this project's pluses, putting more police officers on the street and taking them off the dispatch lines should be at or near the top of the list.