The way Selectman Bruce Rabuffo of Hingham recalls it, the planning for a regional emergency dispatch center included expectations that it would save a good chunk of change.
In some ways, it has. Hingham, Cohasset, Norwell, and Hull were able to build a state-of-the-art facility with the help of state grants that rewarded the communities for their combined efforts.
However, the jury is still out on whether the South Shore Regional Emergency Communications Center is saving them money. Town officials have begun analyzing the costs and benefits, while they grapple with their budgets for the coming year.
At this point, Hingham has the most detailed accounting and shows an overall increase in spending. The other communities say their spending is flat or lower, though differing accounting methods make the numbers difficult to compare.
“All I know is when this was initially proposed to us, they were talking about a 50 percent savings annually,” Rabuffo said. “And, of course, you’d say, ‘Are you kidding me?’ But they swore up and down. But none of those town managers are here anymore . . . but that’s what they told us, and it was a bad estimate.”
The discussion of the dispatch center’s value has continued since the four towns moved their operations to the facility, located in Hingham.
The center opened in December 2011, and Cohasset was the last to move in last August. While there are many unanswered questions about cost, most officials say the technological upgrades and intertown cooperation are well worth it.
Town Administrator Ted Alexiades of Hingham said the town’s cost of emergency dispatch operations and employee benefits will be $675,000 in fiscal 2014, which will begin July 1 and will be the first full year that all four communities are in the center. This compares with about $456,000 in fiscal 2011, the last year Hingham ran a separate dispatch center. (The fiscal 2011 number was about $50,000 lower than usual, due to one-year cutbacks.)
Rabuffo attributed the increased spending to an overestimation of the savings, which supporters said would result from fewer redundancies and better coordination among the towns.
Alexiades said the topic is under investigation.
“We’re analyzing all these costs,” he said. “We owe it to ourselves to examine what transpired and make sure we learn from [it].”
Among the possible explanations are higher-than-expected costs for installing software and the need for more training than anticipated.
The formula used to allocate costs among the four communities may also need some adjustment if officials discover that any of the towns is carrying a disproportionate burden, Alexiades said.
Currently, the towns factor in all costs and apportion them mainly on the basis of each town’s population and 911 call volume. The state also provides an annual grant, estimated at about $542,000 in fiscal 2013. that goes directly to the dispatch center and not the towns.
Still, Alexiades stressed that despite higher-than-expected costs and a difficult first few months of coordinating the new system, the town is reaping huge benefits
For example, the four towns received millions of dollars from the state for new equipment and technology, such as laptops for police cruisers, communication equipment for all safety personnel, and software that tracks incoming calls and statistics about them.
“At the end of the day, it will be less about saving money and more about providing a higher level of service,” Alexiades said.
That increased service was exhibited during this month’s blizzard, when the dispatch center received more than 100 calls an hour.
For a time, Scituate’s dispatch center lost power and went down, and Scituate calls were being routed to the Hingham-based station.
According to Town Manager Michael Milanoski of Cohasset, none of the four communities could have dealt with that kind of volume individually.
In another instance, Hingham had to deal simultaneously with a missing child, a person who needed CPR instructions, and someone who had been severely shocked by a downed wire.
“Under the old system, they couldn’t have handled that amount of activity, but the [dispatch center] could accommodate that,” Milanoski said. “We have seen some increased services, as we expected.”
For Cohasset, the emergency dispatch operating budget totaled $239,353 in fiscal 2011 (the cost of benefits was not available) and is estimated to total about $250,000 in fiscal 2014 (which does include benefits).
But whatever the costs, Cohasset now has better technology, better coordination with other towns, and trained medical dispatchers, which it did not have before, but was mandated to get under state law.
Norwell is also benefiting from having trained medical dispatchers, but its experience points out one of the difficulties of determining the true cost.
According to Town Administrator James Boudreau, operations and benefits costs will fall from $465,000 in fiscal 2011 to $325,000 in fiscal 2014. These numbers, however, do not reflect a related $200,000 increase in the police budget.
Under state law, towns must have a “safe haven” for residents during emergencies. Norwell’s haven used to be staffed by the local dispatch center, but when it moved to the regional center, the town increased staffing at the police station to create its safe haven. The town is now making technology upgrades to its police station, which will allow residents to use it as a safe haven without additional staffing.
Cohasset also is dealing with this issue, Milanoski said, and has to budget for additional overtime to monitor the police station at night and supervise prisoners. Hull, however, hasn’t had to boost any budgets, because its safe haven has been staffed with a clerk and reserve officers, not dispatchers.
In fact, Hull is the only community that has seen substantial savings. Its dispatch center spent more than $486,000 for operations and benefits in fiscal 2011, and that number has dropped to $355,000 in fiscal 2014.
Like officials from the other communities, Town Manager Philip Lemnios stressed that cost is not the primary driver.
“Our incentive to go into the regional dispatch was to improve quality of dispatch service to the residents of Hull,” Lemnios said. “. . . In addition, there would be better coordination among the four communities’ public safety, that rely on one another with mutual aid.”
Despite rave reviews by town managers, Rabuffo still wants an analysis of how the program is working, which will include a discussion on the efficiencies and service comparisons, in addition to cost.
The need for a review was highlighted when selectmen received a letter this month from Hingham fire captains, complaining about the time needed to dispatch firefighters and other errors in the center’s daily operations.
Despite the rough spots, officials have high hopes of getting the dispatch center operating at close to earlier expectations.
“The concept of regionalization is a good concept, but the question is how do you manage it?” said Rabuffo, who hopes the discussion will take place in April. “It’s the practice, not the policy. . . . How do we make it work better?”