By John Laidler, Globe Correspondent | May 28, 2006
The 911 call answered by a local dispatcher may soon be a thing of the past in much of Essex County.
A number of communities are exploring the creation of a regional dispatch facility that would handle calls for police, fire, and ambulance service for communities that choose to participate.
``It's still in its conceptual stage," Topsfield Fire Chief Ronald Giovannacci said. But he said the idea is generating strong interest among area public safety officials, who believe it could offer communities both a cost savings and an improved system for handling calls for help.
``Everyone really wants to look into this and see what fruits it will bear," said Giovannacci, who is president of the Essex County Fire Chiefs' Association.
The Northeast Regional Homeland Security Council recently endorsed a request by a number of Essex County communities for $80,000 in federal funds to pay for a study of the idea.
The vote, and the interest shown by local communities, strengthens the prospects of funding being awarded by the US Department of Homeland Security, said Peter Judge, spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.
The council is one of five bodies established by the state to promote regional collaboration on emergency response issues, and to advise the state and federal governments on how to spend federal Homeland Security money.
To date, the governing bodies in Beverly, Danvers, Essex, Ipswich, Georgetown, Middleton, Topsfield, and Wenham have signed a nonbinding letter of interest in being part of the study, as have the Essex County sheriff's office and fire districts based in Beverly and Lawrence, according to Giovannacci. A fire district coordinates mutual aid among area fire departments.
Also indicating interest, but not yet signing letters, are Boxford, Groveland, Manchester-by-the-Sea, North Andover, North Reading, and Salem, and CMED Region 3, an agency that controls radio transmissions between ambulances and hospitals.
The idea of a regional dispatch center is already causing some anxiety in the ranks of local civilian dispatchers, who wonder if it would mean a loss of jobs.
``There's just a lot of questions and a lot of uncertainty at this point," said Anne Marie Cullen, chief dispatcher for the Hamilton-Wenham communications center and president of the Massachusetts Communications Supervisors Association, a group that facilitates information-sharing among dispatchers.
Giovannacci, who has agreed to address association members at their meeting tentatively scheduled for June 21 in Hamilton, said a regional dispatch facility would offer potential benefits to the dispatchers.
While local dispatch operations and the jobs involved would be eliminated, ``our hope is that local dispatchers would apply for these positions," he said of the new regional jobs, ``and that they would receive additional training."
``The benefit to them would be that there is no clear path" currently for them to advance in their field, he said. ``This gives them an actual career ladder," noting that they could progress into managerial roles.
Giovannacci said the potential benefits of a regional facility for municipalities would include savings in labor as well as capital equipment. He said it could also be more efficient and effective to dispatch on a regional basis.
He noted that most communities have only one dispatcher on duty at a time. As a result, if a call comes in while the dispatcher is on the phone, it is kicked over to a neighboring community, which can lead to a delay in dispatching. He said that would not occur with a regional facility.
Giovannacci said the regional facility's dispatchers would be emergency medical dispatchers, meaning they would have the training to advise callers on how to deal with medical emergencies until help arrives. He said most local dispatchers do not have that training.
Essex Police Chief Peter G. Silva said he believes a regional dispatch center is ``absolutely worthy of pursuing further," because of the potential for saving money and for offering a more ``professional, standardized" way of dispatching calls.
``In today's age of homeland security, in a lot of the ways we do things, the focus seems to be on standardizing the product we put out," he said. ``So this is something to me that looks quite attractive when you look at the cost of running our own dispatch centers, what you could gain from better equipment and better training."
Cullen noted, though, that local dispatchers ``have an intimate knowledge of their own towns. I'm not sure that you'll be able to get that" in a regional center.
Addressing that concern, Giovannacci said that local dispatchers ``for the most part don't even live in the communities. . . . They are not as familiar with the community as you might think they would be."
He said a regional facility would be able to purchase up-to-date technology to aid in dispatching, such as global positioning system equipment, which might be too expensive for individual communities.
``You are talking about a state-of-the-art facility that has everything under the sun as far as equipment goes," said Wenham Police Chief Kenneth Walsh.
Giovannacci said regional public safety dispatching is common in many parts of the country. Essex County itself features some of it: In addition to the joint communications center used by Hamilton and Wenham, Lynn provides fire dispatching for Lynn, Nahant, and Swampscott, he said.
Giovannacci said the proposed study would examine both the potential benefits and any drawbacks of a regional facility. It will also help explore issues such as how costs would be apportioned among communities, where it would be located, and whether it would handle all public safety calls or just emergency ones.
``There are a lot of questions that are not answered at this level. That's exactly why we're doing the study," Walsh said.