South Shore regional dispatch center digs in for contract talks

With all four member communities onboard at the new South Shore regional dispatch center, local officials and Teamsters representatives are digging in for negotiations on a contract that could serve as a model for similar operations around the state.

The contract covering employees at the center — which dispatches police, fire, and ambulance personnel in Cohasset, Hingham, Hull, and Norwell — is just one of its growing pains but could have the longest-lasting effects.

According to town officials, the unexplored territory of a regional dispatch center has given the talks extra significance, as they will establish the groundwork for future contracts.

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“For us, establishing what turns out to be the foundational compensation levels and terms and conditions of employment are important,” said Hull Town Manager Philip Lemnios. “Once you set that first contract . . . the changes tend to be incremental.”

“The contract is the base for all the other contracts,’’ Norwell Town Administrator James Boudreau said, “so we want to make sure it’s right, so we’re not correcting things for the rest of the history.’’

Officials for Teamsters Local 25, which represents the dispatchers and their supervisors, did not return phone calls seeking comment. But town officials said the union also sees the first contract as especially meaningful, and hopes to set a benchmark for how regional centers might work in other towns.

The contract is just the latest bump in the road for the South Shore Emergency Communications Center, which operates out of a second-floor space in Hingham’s Town Hall.

The idea of combining public safety dispatch operations for the four towns was initially proposed in 2008, but it took three years to work out the details for the move.

Then there was the massive overhaul of equipment and computer software, funded by about $5 million from the state’s 911 dispatch center, in a process that has caused some tension among employees over how to operate the facility.

Hingham’s dispatchers began working in the new center in November, and were joined by counterparts from Hull and Norwell over the next few months, and then by Cohasset this week. However, some training problems remain.

“I think we’re still working on implementing training — showing people how to use the new tools that we have deployed in this center, the new technology, and working with our police and fire departments and dispatchers who have come from all towns to manage this center,” said Hingham Town Administrator Ted Alexiades.

“That has been our biggest challenge . . . we’re asking them to learn the boundaries of different communities, how they respond, those integrations are challenging. I think that’s the core of everything we’re struggling with, in some respects.”

Cohasset’s acting town manager, Michael Milanoski, could not be reached for comment on the new facility.

The center is also developing standard operating procedures along with the new technology.

All of this learning is occurring on a high-anxiety job in which people’s lives are often on the line.

When the dispatch center receives a call, Alexiades said, “it’s usually a crisis, which is the worst environment to learn in, but that’s what it is, and that’s our biggest challenge.”

The employees are working under the conditions established as part of their initial agreement when they accepted jobs at the regional center.

Michael Peraino, chief of the Hingham Police Department, said that before Cohasset came aboard, the dispatch center was shorthanded. To make things more difficult, he said, the lack of a contract has reduced morale among employees.

However, Peraino said, he still sees the benefit of having a centralized dispatch center. “We’ve been at it for nine months now, we think it’s . . . an improvement, but we still have the kinks to get worked out,’’ he said.

All in all, it’s a process that will take time.

“I don’t think the first spaceship that [launched for] the moon landed,’’ said Alexiades. “We had some hiccups. Even NASA has had their issues, so we will work through them.”

The new contract negotiations have been taking place for three months, after the dispatch center certified its union.

Alexiades and Lemnios — representing the four towns — and town counsel are meeting with an attorney and a business agent from Local 25. The towns also have hired a management consulting company, which has a representative sitting in on the talks.

The towns expect to hire an executive director for the dispatch center within a year. If the union negotiations are still going on, the director would join the proceedings.

However long the process takes, Alexiades said, there is no doubt the regionalization effort will work in the end.

“I’m confident we will come to an arrangement with the Teamsters,’’ he said. “They have the interest of their members at heart, and we have all four towns’ interests at heart, and we will marry those. We will have a contract.”

According to town officials, the new arrangement has to work.

“Regionalization is the only true way that government can provide services to citizens at reduced cost, or at lower increasing costs. It’s the only way, and we ought to share our resources, because it makes sense,” Alexiades said. “Regionalization will continue on because we cannot avoid the economic realities of where we are. And it’s not going to get easier. This is the way of the future.”

Boudreau agreed that regionalization can significantly curb expenses.

With so much time and effort on the line, town officials are eager to see everything work smoothly.

“There are implications for the towns, unions, jobs, people’’ if the regional arrangement doesn’t work, said Hingham Selectman Bruce Rabuffo.

“There are big stakes — even for the lieutenant governor,’’ as the head of the Patrick administration’s efforts to regionalize certain functions in communities across the state, Rabuffo said. “Then there are financial implications, because the state has funded some of this, so they want to see it work.”

However, Lemnios said, he believes the center’s biggest issues are behind it.

“The four communities are working well together,” he said. “We’ve gone through the first major transition: creating it, and getting it up and running.”