By Susan Gonsalves, Contributing Writer
SOUTHBOROUGH – Selectmen recently advised Town Administrator Mark Purple to work with Southborough’s police and fire chiefs to gather more information about the possibility of pursuing a regional dispatch center to handle emergency management needs.
At the August 17 meeting, board members emphasized that they are at the start of the process, so they can weigh the pros and cons of the option before making a commitment to go further.
Fire Chief Steven Achilles said the state has earmarked $22 million for projects as a result of its “very strong interest” in locating regional dispatch centers in the MetroWest area.
Regardless of whether Southborough participates or not, Achilles said the town is facing upgrades of technology at its communication center that will come with a “hefty price tag.”
Southborough could end up competing for state funds against regional centers, so it’s a good time to explore the alternative, he said.
Achilles noted that Westborough, Marlborough and Grafton have expressed an interest in regional dispatch. If such a center was created to include Southborough, it would house eight departments—fire and police—from each of those communities.
The fire chief emphasized a dispatch center is more than “just a room.”
It involves a lot of infrastructure technology-wise throughout the town, so part of the process will involve investigating costs, he said.
Selectman Sam Stivers asked if Southborough has the space to host such a regional center.
Police Chief Kenneth Paulhus said “no” explaining that a regional center is a “big operation” with its own needs and infrastructure that is staffed well beyond what exists now.
Purple said a regional center would likely be a “stand-alone facility” located outside of town. Before he committed to exploring anything, he wanted to be certain the selectmen were on board with that possibility.
“Once you make the commitment to go into a regional [center], you can’t go back,” Purple said.
Chief Paulhus said that he needs to gather more information before deciding whether he’s in favor of the idea.
“It’s becoming the wave of the future,” he said. “There are problems with it, but I want to hear what they have to say…It’s evolving. My ears are open.”
The police chief said Southborough’s current dispatch operation needs to expand “sooner rather than later.”
He noted that the town’s system has been operating with one dispatcher per shift. It does not cover the 24-hour model.
The town has been employing part-time employees and paying overtime to fill in the gaps. It needs to hire at least one full-time additional dispatcher and possibly a supervisor, Chief Paulhus said, in order to handle the needs of both the police and fire departments.
Board of Selectmen Vice Chair Chelsea Marie Malinowski said she is in favor of “throwing our hat in the ring” but spoke about putting together a working group or committee to study the matter.
“We need to put something more robust together so residents understand the pros and cons, given [that] we built a new public safety building,” she said.
Purple said the town needs to decide whether it will hire a consultant to look at the needs and issues and have participation in a larger group effort versus a smaller, local process. But Purple emphasized he doesn’t want to get ahead of the preliminaries.
“We need to put our foot in the door first,” Purple said. “I intend to commit only to the point of getting information and an understanding and then the Board of Selectmen can decide what the next steps will be.”
Chair Lisa Braccio said there is a lot of studying to take place as well as public involvement and participation.
“This is a starting point,” she added.