SHIRLEY -- The Ayer Shirley Regional Dispatch Center will start taking all E-911 calls starting next month, Police Chief Samuel Santiago and Fire Chief Dennis Levesque told Shirley selectmen this week.
When it's fully up and on line in May, the same system will handle all calls -- both emergency 911 calls and non-emergency calls that come in on the business line.
The new regional dispatch will be located in the Ayer Police Station.
As of April 2, if a Shirley resident calls 911 for emergency help, the call will be answered by a dispatcher at the regional center in Ayer and directed to the appropriate emergency services sectors in town, ambulance, fire or police, with responders dispatched directly from the center.
The business (non-emergency) number will remain as is until May 2. As of that date, all calls to Shirley police or fire departments will be answered at the Ayer Shirley Regional Dispatch Center in Ayer.
The move to regionalize -- in the works for some time -- stems in part from the need to have full-time, E-911-certified dispatchers on duty around the clock, which has been a problem for about a year now.
At the recent board meeting, Chief Santiago sketched the situation as it stands.
Noting that the merger offers perks such as state E-911 grants for new equipment that are not available for solo operations, Santiago explained that it also brings on board a full roster of E-911-certified dispatchers to cover both towns, 24/7.
With only two full time, E-911-certified dispatchers working in town, it's a challenge to do that now, Santiago said.
The two dispatchers have been deployed to the limit and then some in the scramble to cover all four shifts, with police officers serving as dispatchers to close the gaps.
Not surprisingly, the issue is mostly about money.
Absent a competitive wage scale to attract and retain licensed dispatchers, it's been a revolving door for new hires. "They come and go," he told the board.
Now, that problem will be solved. But there will be changes some might find disruptive, at least for awhile. For example, although the town's police, fire and ambulance services will still respond to E-911 calls as they do now, those calls won't be answered in Shirley.
The calls will go to the ASRDC in Ayer and the required services will be dispatched from there.
The change to regional from local dispatch applies to phone services, but there will be physical differences as well. The most visible difference for Shirley residents will be that as of May 2, the police station lobby will not be open 24/7, as it is now and there will be no dispatcher on duty. No more walk-ins after hours, in other words.
The station will be open during business hours only, with someone at the desk during the day. However, police officers will still be on duty all the time, with no change in the availability of on-site police services during the day or in the community around the clock.
But the first change is coming up on April 2, when E-911 calls start going directly to the Ayer Shirley Regional Dispatch Center, with all calls headed there by May 2.
Asked about non-emergency caller access, say if someone wants to speak to the Shirley police chief or his administrative assistant, who is also the department's information officer, or to a police officer or the fire chief or someone else at the fire station, Santiago told a Nashoba Valley Voice reporter this week that it's his understanding that such calls would be re-routed back from the ASRDC in Ayer to the respective parties in Shirley. That's what happens in other towns that have regional dispatch, he said, such as Harvard and Lancaster, which are part of the Devens-based Nashoba Regional Dispatch Center, along with several other communities.
He wasn't sure if the non-emergency number, or business line, would stay the same or not.
The agreement the two towns entered into on Dec. 6, 2017, spells out the specifics of the merger, including the services it covers, the state law it's tied to and the responsibilities of each town, It states that the town of Shirley has agreed to pay the town of Ayer $100,000 in two installments for Fiscal Year 2019. The assessment amount increases to $120,000 for the following year.
The Ayer Shirley Regional Dispatch Center agreement is a public document and available online.