Towns may go regional with emergency dispatch calls


Towns may go regional with emergency dispatch calls
A building that once served to help treat contaminated soil and groundwater at Hocomonco Pond could become a regional dispatch center. (Photo/Maureen Sullivan)

REGION – Four communities — Grafton, Hopkinton, Southborough and Westborough — are considering the formation of a regional emergency dispatch center.

In the fall, the Westborough Select Board approved the use of the building at the south end of Hocomonco Pond for the center. Westborough Fire Chief Patrick Purcell said the building, which is in “pretty tough shape,” would be renovated using state 911 development grant funds. The site will include a new floor, lighting, a training room and kitchenette.

Now, town officials are working on an Inter Municipal Agreement (IMA), which is needed in order to apply for state grants. The four towns are expected to take action on the IMA by mid-February since the deadline to apply for the grants is on March 2.

Hopkinton Select Board Chair Amy Ritterbusch acknowledged that “it does feel rushed” having to make a decision by Feb. 14, but she worried that passing on it could lead to future problems.

“If we don’t make the choice, the RECC will go ahead with the other towns,” she said. “And at some point in the future this is the unknown — we don’t know if the state will say all the towns cannot operate their 911 centers; they all have to join with another; and we will have lost that control to form the kind of district we want to be in.”

About the IMA

There are currently 26 regional dispatch centers operating in Massachusetts.

According to a draft version of the agreement, the proposed Metro West Regional Emergency Communication Center (RECC) would be governed by a board of directors, a finance advisory subcommittee, an operations committee and an executive director.

Costs to run the center would be divided among the communities, based on population and the number of 911 calls. Member communities may withdraw from the agreement provided they meet their financial obligations and give proper notice.

Officials in all four communities are working on the draft agreement.

The pros 

According to officials, the main benefit for all four communities would be an upgrade to its technology that would be paid for by the state.

Grafton Police Chief Normand A. Crepeau said the proposed center will not be replacing the police and departments, but the way 911 calls are handled.

He said the department’s current radio system is 17 years old and has begun to fail. A conversion from analog to digital would be very expensive.

Under the proposal, the state would pay all expenses for the regional center for the first three years, with the communities paying an assessment starting the fourth year.

That could save Grafton up to $5.3 million.

Southborough Select Board member Chelsea Marie Malinowski, who supports regionalization, said that dispatch currently costs the town $400,000 annually for personnel.

Officials in Hopkinton questioned the potential savings once the dispatch center is up and running. A study by the Collins Center estimated Hopkinton would have a projected recurring cost savings of just over $480,000 along with an additional one-time savings of over $460,000 in the first year.

However, a letter from the state noted that a number of factors affected the final cost projections.

According to Purcell, the state grants are funded from cellular phone fees.

“It will cost the town zero dollars to create this center,” said Purcell, adding that Westborough “has a very high chance of receiving this grant.”

The cons

In Hopkinton, officials are concerned there isn’t enough time to study the agreement. How to staff the proposed center is also a major issue.

In November and December, Southborough officials and residents discussed the proposal at length. While proponents tout cost savings, opponents are concerned about losing dispatchers, which may include the loss of local knowledge and areas “going dark” from lack of coverage.

Town officials in Hopkinton said they will not allow that to happen, but there will likely be additional costs.

One staffing model would accommodate five daytime positions, six evening and four overnight — far fewer positions than what is being staffed on the town level.

Grafton Town Administrator Evan Brassard said dispatchers in all four communities would be guaranteed an interview, but no guarantee for a position with the regional center.

Shannon Casey, a Hopkinton dispatcher, was one of a handful of individuals who spoke during public comment on Jan. 24 and raised concerns about the proposed center.

It’s not going to help the town,” she said. “It’s not going to be better in any sense. Your officers don’t want it, your dispatchers don’t want it, many firefighters don’t want it, despite what you’ve been told, and most of the residents don’t want it, and they’ve expressed that. So as you guys representing the residents in the town, I just hope you guys consider that when you’re making a decision.”

If communities opt for local dispatch

Should one or more communities decide to keep its dispatch local, the consequences could get expensive.

In addition to replacing its radio equipment, Grafton plans to add a dispatcher in 2025 or 2026 because the town’s population is increasing.

Southborough Fire Chief Steven Achilles said whether or not there’s regionalization, improvements must be made to the current emergency dispatch situation.

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