March 19, Boston Globe Article

Dispatch center gets go-ahead

By John Laidler Globe Correspondent / March 19, 2009

State officials have agreed to fund the creation of a regional emergency dispatch center in Essex County, clearing the way for the project to move forward.

The state Executive Office of Public Safety last week awarded $4.9 million toward the cost of building and equipping the center. The agency has also committed to covering the balance of the estimated $6.8 million project cost.

Plans call for the center to be housed in a 7,500-square-foot temporary modular building that would be erected on state-owned land on Manning Avenue in Middleton, near the Essex County Correctional Facility.

The center would dispatch all police, fire, and ambulance calls made in participating communities. The office of Essex County Sheriff Frank G. Cousins Jr., which runs the correctional facility, would manage the dispatch center in cooperation with local police, fire, and finance advisory boards.

"Our goal is to get this building up and running in approximately 18 months," Cousins said, noting that securing funding for the project had been one of the primary hurdles.

As part of the grant application process, 13 communities with a combined 200,000 residents sent letters of intent to the state indicating their interest in participating in the center should it come into being. They were Beverly, Essex, Danvers, Hamilton, Ipswich, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Marblehead, Methuen, Middleton, North Andover, Swampscott, Topsfield, and Wenham.

The town meetings and city councils in the 13 communities will now consider whether to authorize their chief executives to enter into inter-community agreements to participate in the centers, according to Danvers Police Chief Neil Ouellette.

Those agreements would provide for an as yet undetermined per capita charge to the communities to fund center operations, said Ouellette, who is confident enough communities will enlist for the project to go forward. He said other communities could join later.

The sheriff's office and the state Division of Capital Asset Management, meanwhile, are expected to shortly begin planning for constructing the building, according to Thomas Dubas, a consultant hired by the sheriff to assist with the process.

The $4.9 million is part of $7.4 million awarded by the state for projects to regionalize emergency dispatch centers.

"Regionalizing emergency communications services allows for more efficient use of tax dollars and more effective delivery of government services," state Public Safety and Security Secretary Kevin M. Burke said in a statement.

The grant fund was created through legislation adopted last year. Under it, telephone customers pay a monthly 75-cent surcharge to fund regionalizing 911 operations; and enhanced training and equipment for all emergency dispatch centers.

A regional committee of public safety officials chaired by Ouellette and Topsfield Fire Chief Ronald P. Giovannacci has been pushing for the Essex County center since 2006.

Ouellette said the center would meet the need for a dispatch facility with sufficient technology and staffing levels to handle major emergencies. He said that need was dramatized by the dispatch problems Danvers experienced during the 2006 chemical plant explosion in the town.

"When we had the blast, the communications system was overburdened," he said. "Our dispatchers did a phenomenal job, but because the phone lines were jammed with incoming calls, they literally couldn't get outside phone lines to call for resources."

His town's dispatch room is also so small that it can be difficult for dispatchers to hear or answer police officers on the radio," Ouellette said, noting, "When one radio is blaring, it drowns out the other."

"When you have any community that has a large event or several communities . . . there is no one location that has substantial awareness of the region," Giovannacci said. A regional center could provide that, providing a single facility where "someone would be able to direct resources where they are needed."

Ouellette said a regional center would also provide career advancement opportunities for dispatchers since it would be large enough to require mid-supervisory and management positions not available at local dispatch centers.

And Ouellette said the center offers the chance for communities to save money by sharing such costs as technology and training.

Responding to concerns he said have been voiced in some communities, Ouellette said there is no intent to eliminate local dispatch jobs. He said it is envisioned that existing dispatchers that choose to do so would transfer to the regional center.

Ouellette said there is also no basis for concern that a regional dispatch center would be hampered by a lack of knowledge of the local communities. He said the technology would allow the location of all incoming calls to be identified. And he said local dispatchers staffing the facility would bring their collective knowledge to the center.

Dubas, who runs a dispatch center for Lackawanna County, Pa., believes the Essex County communities involved will benefit from the planned facility in Middleton.

"The level of expertise, the level of training, and the level of service that a regional center can provide is just so much more responsive for the communities," he said.

© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.