March 13, 2009 Gloucester Daily Times Article

 
Published: March 13, 2009 05:50 am   
 
Essex, Manchester eye $7.4M regional dispatch center
 
By Robert Cann
Staff Writer

Essex police Chief Peter Silva says his department is poised to the catch "the wave of the future."

Officials in Manchester say they're worried it may be more of a financial plunge.

State officials have announced a $7.4 million grant to begin construction of a regional 911 emergency call center adjacent to the Middleton Jail. The call center will perform dispatch services for police and fire departments in 13 communities in Essex County, including Manchester and Essex.

The call center will be managed by the Essex County Sheriff's Department and the communities will need to approve the individual towns' inclusion at their town meetings.

"It means fantastic things for this community," Silva said.

The call center, to be housed in a temporary modular building, will be home to 14 call-taking stations manned by emergency medical dispatchers capable of giving medical advice over the phone while local emergency crews respond.

"The facility will be a secure building and will have auxiliary power," Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins Jr. said. "It will contain a radio system, as well as a CAD system, a piece of equipment where you come up on the map when you call 911."

Silva said the call center will afford the town not only upgraded record-keeping and communications equipment, but an ability to handle larger volumes of calls, which inundate the station's sole dispatcher during emergencies such as fires.

"Just having the extra resources and using the cutting-edge technology will be a tremendous improvement," Silva said. Who added that the department should be upgrading its system currently, but can't afford to do so while remaining fiscally responsible.

Essex Selectmen Chairman Ray Randall said, "the cost to participate will be far less and the technology will be far more state-of-the art than we could provide."

However, Manchester Town Administrator Wayne Melville said he is more skeptical of the call center's ability to save his town money.

"It's not going to save us money," Melville said. "It's going to cost us money."

Melville supports the idea, saying that it's a good way to improve the professionalism of dispatchers. However, he said, "they're not going to offer it for free and we're not going to be able to replace anybody."

Essex County Sheriff's Department spokesman Paul Fleming said that specific costs to towns involved will be "determined at a later date" by a group of fire and police chiefs who will talk with selectmen and administrators.

Melville said the only person that could possibly be let go from the Manchester Police Department is the dispatcher, but that's unlikely since there needs to be an individual at the front of the station to take business calls and meet the public at all hours of the day.

Silva said Essex police will "have to make some concessions."

While he said that during the day there is almost always someone at the station who could greet the public — in addition to the dispatcher — at night there may be times when there is no-one available at the station.

Two of the options Silva is considering to make the station available to the public during the night include an emergency telephone mounted to the building or a "safety vestibule" that could be closed and locked by an individual in distress.

Asked what the new call center would mean for current dispatchers, Silva said, "this is an opportunity for them to reach a higher level."

"These people would need to through the hiring process," said Silva. "But, they certainly have things that other people may not, including dispatch experience."

Manchester Fire Chief Andrew Paskalis said that the new call center would provide his crew with more flexibility and streamline certain procedures.

The Fire Department, which does not have a full-time dispatcher, keeps one of the two or three people on duty at any time in the station to answer calls. The police dispatcher functions as the Fire Department's dispatcher.

The new call center would allow all on-duty crew to leave the station to perform inspections and other services, he said. It would also streamline the process of requesting mutual aid during a fire or another emergency, he added.

To help the public who call the station directly, Paskalis said that a message could be recorded advising anyone seeking emergency help to call 911. For those who come to the station, he suggested mounting an emergency phone on the exterior of the building.

"Do you lose any identity in the community?" said Silva. "I don't think so."

"It's only perception," said Randall, who added that it's not necessary to have a dispatcher in the community.

The funding is part of a grant for 12 projects statewide that will consolidate emergency dispatch. The grants were awarded by the state 911 Department and the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

Cousins said the money "will be used for capital expenditures," such as the cost to build the new center. The money will be received in two phases to complete the building. The first amount, $4,943,000 received on Monday, will allow construction of the facility to begin immediately. The second amount, $1,860,000, will be awarded within the next fiscal year to complete the center.

The call center will serve approximately 215,000 people in Danvers, Essex, Manchester, Methuen, North Andover, Topsfield, Wenham, Beverly, Ipswich, Marblehead, Middleton, Swampscott and Hamilton.

The Middleton center is expected to be up and running in a year to 18 months.

Correspondent Chelsey Pletts contributed to this story by staff writer Robert Cann, who can be reached at gt_reporter@gloucestertimes.com