By Susan Gonsalves, Contributing Writer
SOUTHBOROUGH – Southborough took the next step in exploring the possibility of regionalizing its public safety dispatch services Oct. 5.
During a Board of Selectmen meeting, the board talked about a study to be conducted by the Edward J. Collins Jr. Center for Public Management at UMass Boston.
The study, to be done over six months, will gather data on the feasibility of establishing or joining a regional emergency communications center. The possible collaborating communities are Hopkinton, Hudson, Grafton, Marlborough, Westborough and Southborough, according to Southborough Town Administrator Mark Purple.
State 911 funds will be used to cover the study at no cost to the towns.
Southborough prepares team approach to regionalization talks
Purple said there needs to be a team approach throughout the process.
“We’re looking at each domino…to understand what we have locally and then compare it to a regional basis,” Purple said, noting that each community is different.
The team from Southborough will consist of Purple, Fire Chief Steven Achilles, Police Chief Kenneth Paulhus as well as Selectmen Vice Chair Chelsea Malinowski as the board’s representative.
Purple said the town has to make sure its voices and needs are heard.
Local leaders ‘excited’ about study, discussions
Achilles said the information from the study will be valuable because it will highlight where each community stands and whether regionalization of services makes sense.
Paulhus described himself as “actually excited,” about having public safety officials come together and have a transparent process so that questions and anxiety can be addressed.
He said the study would provide “a boat-load of information” and said he expects the town will be able to make an informed decision it can be confident about in six months.
Malinowski pointed out that the study may indicate that regionalization is appropriate for some of the towns but not for others. Out of the six communities, for example, regionalization might make sense for three, she said.
Purple replied that the study would address that option because it is looking at each town individually and collectively.
Pointing out that it isn’t costing the town any money, Chair Lisa Braccio said the study is “an opportunity I’m not sure we can pass up.”
The next step will be a kickoff meeting on October 13 at Southborough’s public safety facility.
Study to collect variety of data points
The proposal from the Collins Center, signed by Tom Kennedy, outlines other steps after the first meeting, including interviews, on-site assessments, document review, data collection, analysis, a preliminary report and review and the final report.
The report will eventually be presented at a public meeting.
Data will be collected on equipment used, staffing levels and training, financial costs for current dispatch services, call volume, capacity/ability to accommodate research/planning and more.
Kennedy wrote the most important part of the process is to hear the concerns of community leaders.
He listed expected benefits of a regional approach, including having more personnel to handle increased 911 call volume, cost savings, enhanced mutual aid, financial support and more efficient services.
Idea of regionalized dispatch prompts some concerns
Cited as expected concerns were labor issues/seniority, keeping out the dynamics of politics, not having anyone at the police department window or to monitor prisoners, loss of local knowledge, (i.e., landmarks) and the need for updated dispatch protocols, according to the report.
Selectman Sam Stivers said it will be an “interesting challenge,” to find something that works for the wide range of utilization by the communities.
Stivers said it is important to avoid being “pulled along in directions we’re not comfortable with,” and “being carried along by others” to pay for things the town may not want.
He said those issues will come up as the pros and cons are addressed.
Marlborough mayor pens update on regionalization talks
Marlborough Mayor Arthur Vigeant wrote in a letter to the City Council, last month, that the city had been in contact with the state regarding the possible creation of a regional dispatch center in town.
Vigeant added that a new state of the art dispatch center, which would contain many upgrades, would get significant state funding due to its push to regionalize public safety operations throughout Massachusetts.
“The state is moving in this direction and we can either jump onboard now or be forced to do so in years to come,” he wrote.
Vigeant wrote that Marlborough Fire Chief Kevin Breen had been in contact with area communities to explore the possibility.
Such a collaboration in area towns would be far from the first such program in the state.
There are more than two dozen existing regional dispatch programs in Massachusetts, according to a map attached to Vigeant’s letter.
Nearby programs include a six-community collaboration between Berlin, Bolton, Harvard, Lancaster, Lunenburg and Townsend.
There are also collaborations between Upton and Hopedale and Worcester and Leicester.
Additional reporting by Stuart Foster