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911 study finds some reluctant to regionalize

Uniting could save cash, but might step on toes

By Jennette Barnes
Globe Correspondent / March 8, 2012
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Norfolk County communities have enough 911 dispatch staff to handle four times their present call volume if they cooperate in a regional communications center, according to a recent study.

Five towns selected for in-depth analysis - Canton, Holbrook, Randolph, Sharon, and Westwood - could save a combined $900,000 annually.

But the study also reported that, if communities hope to regionalize, they must overcome a variety of hurdles, including a divide between police and firefighters that some acknowledge and others deny.

“That blue-red line seems to always get in the way,’’ said Lisa Weinthal, author of the report, which the Norfolk County Fire Chiefs Association commissioned from Intertech Associates of New Jersey.

Some community officials who were enthusiastic during an information session later showed “a clear disinterest’’ in participating, apparently because fire agencies were leading the effort, according to the report. While 70 percent of fire departments responded to a request for information, only two police departments did.

“The underlying concept was [some people thought firefighters] were going to skew the report to their benefit,’’ Weinthal said in a recent interview.

Since the report was issued in late fall, communities have put those attitudes aside, she said, and some have started talking about cooperating in small groups.

Canton Police Chief Kenneth Berkowitz said any police-fire issues have been ironed out.

But two fire chiefs, Edward O’Brien of Holbrook and William Scoble of Westwood, said differences in how police and fire departments operate lead to inherent differences in how they view regionalization.

Firefighters depend on mutual aid from other departments every day, while police rely on aid less often.

Police departments get more foot traffic, so they need someone in the lobby who can respond to the public.

That dynamic, according to Walpole Police Chief Richard Stillman, would force police departments to hire receptionists to cover the lobby if dispatchers no longer worked in the station, reducing any savings achieved with regional dispatch.

“I don’t think communities are ready to walk in and see a dispatcher on a computer screen,’’ he said.

Firefighters say better service, not saving money, is the main goal.

If a town merely wanted to save money, Scoble said, it could lay off four firefighters and degrade its service.

Instead, regional dispatch would simplify the mutual aid system with one point of contact, so dispatchers have a better idea of what’s going on across the area, he said.

A regional dispatcher would know where every ambulance was and whether one was available.

Economies of scale come along for the ride, Scoble said, but “I want to do it because I want a better product.’’

Supporters of regionalization also say employing civilian dispatchers would free police and firefighters to focus on other things.

Berkowitz, for example, said he would like to post an officer at Canton’s William H. Galvin Middle School because a similar assignment at the high school has worked well.

A territorial issue - the question of which community or communities would host a regional facility - also came to the fore in the study.

Some local officials told researchers they viewed the project as a “veiled opportunity for Holbrook to expand the reach of the fire service and Norfolk County Control.’’

Norfolk County Control coordinates mutual aid for the county and is located in the Holbrook public safety building. In addition, Holbrook dispatches fire calls for Sharon and has agreed to start dispatching Abington fire calls in the near future.

The study aimed to collect information from all cities and towns in Norfolk County and the bordering Bristol County towns of Easton and Mansfield, where officials have taken an interest in the subject.

One Plymouth County town, Abington, participated in the informational meeting but not the study.

Five communities identified as typical of Norfolk County in population and square mileage - Canton, Holbrook, Randolph, Sharon, and Westwood - were used as models to calculate potential savings.

Some communities, including Avon, Braintree, Cohasset, Dedham, Quincy, and Walpole, did not supply staffing data that researchers requested.

Cohasset is already cooperating with the Plymouth County towns of Hingham, Hull, and Norwell on a regional center that is in the process of setting up and running.

Elsewhere in the state, Hopkinton and Ashland are exploring merging their fire departments in hopes of saving money. Barnstable County has a regional dispatch center, and one is under construction in Essex County. Four western Norfolk County towns - Franklin, Norfolk, Plainville, and Wrentham - are participating in a separate study, and a study has been done on Bristol County.

In Dedham, Fire Chief William Cullinane said he would like to see regional dispatch in operation before he commits to anything.

“In this area, in this state, there’s really no models that have been up and operating,’’ he said. “It wouldn’t be wise to commit until you know the results.’’

Cullinane said he didn’t get information to the researchers in time.

“It’s not that we’re not interested in regionalization. We’re always looking to improve our service,’’ he said.

Stillman, police chief in Walpole and a member of the state 911 Commission, said he did not receive the study materials. “Obviously, the study was not well distributed,’’ he said.

Still, he said, regionalization is “something I think we have to do.’’

The Norfolk study estimates the county’s existing personnel could handle 600,000 emergency calls a year at a regional center, compared with the 150,000 calls they actually receive in their separate departments.

Taking small steps, such as regionalizing a few like-sized communities, is feasible, according to the report.

It says Holbrook could handle four or five communities at its existing facility.

One critical step in regional cooperation, the report says, is establishing a board or commission with broad representation to give the project credibility.

Any regional communications center should become an independent, quasi-government agency, a process likely to require state legislation, according to the report.

Fire chiefs said the process will be slow, and it will involve collective bargaining.

Plus, it will have to overcome an ingrained culture of local control.

“Absolutely, without question . . . I think that really is the largest barrier to doing it,’’ Scoble said. “This is New England.’’

That culture has given Massachusetts hundreds of different answering points for public safety calls, compared with as few as five or fewer in some states, said O’Brien.

“I tell people it’s easier to push a string up a hill than it is to do this,’’ he said.

Jennette Barnes can be reached at

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