PEPPERELL — Cost savings and increased public safety are the reasons to join or form a regional dispatch center according to speakers at an informational workshop.
After Pepperell selectmen signed an agreement in April to join the Northern Middlesex Regional Communications Center that will be built in Tewksbury, public safety personnel voiced objections.
The workshop on June 7 allowed residents to voice their concerns and ask questions of others involved in different regional centers.
“When minutes matter, this is a huge change,” said Cohasset Fire Chief Robert Silvia. The town belongs to a four-member center.
One of the future benefits of being part of a regional center is the next generation 911 service that will be available. Calls from cell phones will go directly to the center, rather than be routed through a state police barracks as they are now, said Frank Pozniak, executive director of the state 911 department. The state police can take 60 to 90 seconds to send the call to where it should go.
Governance of the centers is determined by the members. The four town managers worry about the budget and a committee of the four fire and four police chiefs worry about the operations, Silvia said. Where possible they have standardized practices.
Competitive state grants are available for building out a new regional system and for ongoing operations, Pozniak said.
“Grants will be funding every penny to get it up and running,” he said. The funds come from a surcharge on cell phone bills, not from taxes.
Cohasset kept its old equipment to ensure they had a redundant system in case the regional center went down, Silvia said.
Pepperell’s equipment needs to be replaced, said both Town Administrator Mark Andrews and Communications Director David Stairs.
The money the town does not spend on this and other cost savings that are a result of the new center can be used in other ways for public safety, said Melissa Tzanoudakis, chairman of the Board of Selectmen. “We’re not going to stick it back into free cash.”
Concerns were voiced about manning the police station outside of regular hours when dispatch is no longer on site. “We are open to having a new police officer,” Tzanoudakis said, rather than a security guard.
That was the first he had heard about hiring a new officer, said Police Chief David Scott.
Plans are for five dispatchers to be on duty in Tewksbury at all times once it opens in January 2019. More dispatchers can be added for major incidents, such as an ice storm.
Mansfield is joining another new dispatch center. The console is expandable, said Police Chief Ronald Sellon.
Calls will be answered in the order they come in, said Beverly Woods, the executive director of the Northern Middlesex Council of Governments. The planning agency helped form the new dispatch center.
Pepperell does not abut the other two towns in the new center, Tewksbury and Dracut. This raised another concern. Currently, local dispatchers know the town and monitor surrounding towns in order to respond if needed.
The new center will continue to monitor calls in the towns that provide mutual aid to Pepperell, Stairs said. In a mass incident, monitoring could be more challenging because Lowell, a large city, will also be in the mix.
New technology will play a big role. Mapping software, kept up-to-date with new streets and information, mean that dispatchers will be know where the calls are, Pozniak said.
At one point, someone called out that the informational session should have happened before the selectmen signed the contract.
“We’re not happy with the way the process worked,” said Jason Russell, a fire lieutenant.
When the South Shore regional dispatch first opened, each meeting began with the question “So, what are the complaints?” Silvia said. “Now all you hear are crickets.”
Follow Anne O’Connor on Twitter @a1oconnor.