Push is on to share dispatchers

By Jennette Barnes
Globe Correspondent / May 29, 2011

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If your house catches fire, you want all hands on deck. Some area departments have put more firefighters on the road by centralizing dispatch functions with nearby communities, and more than a dozen other towns are exploring the idea for all emergency responders.

Communities participating in a feasibility study, due out in September, include Avon, Dedham, Franklin, Holbrook, Medway, Milton, Norfolk, Plainville, Randolph, Stoughton, Walpole, Westwood, Weymouth, and Wrentham. Sharon is involved via its connection with Holbrook, which began providing dispatch services for its Fire Department last year. The study will consider Holbrook and other communities, including Weymouth, as potential locations for regional centers.

Four area towns — Hingham, Hull, Norwell, and Cohasset — are already deep into their shared venture, with a regional dispatch center set to open in Hingham this summer that will handle all of their police, fire, and medical-emergency calls.

A few weeks ago, local officials attended a meeting in Canton with Intertech Associates Inc., a New Jersey consulting firm conducting the feasibility study. Michael Gallagher, Weymouth’s director of administrative services, said he has identified a possible location in his community, though he was not ready to reveal it.

“It’s premature to talk about that,’’ he said, adding he had discussed it with Weymouth officials in only the most cursory way. “It could become very controversial, and we could decide it’s not something we want to do. I haven’t even had these conversations with the mayor yet.’’

Still, Gallagher and others cited gains from taking police and firefighters off the dispatch desk and putting them on the street.

“I think the appeal is, if there’s a way to save the community monies that can be directed to the actual emergency-services delivery,’’ he said.

That’s how it has worked for Sharon’s Fire Department, where Captain Richard Murphy said four firefighters — one per shift — have been relieved of dispatch duty so they can respond to fires. It’s as if the department got to hire four firefighters on the cheap, because Holbrook’s dispatch fee is less than their salaries.

“Overall it’s been great, actually, because it’s allowed us to free up one more firefighter’’ per shift, he said. Murphy said the system had a few growing pains at first, when the Holbrook dispatchers didn’t know Sharon as well geographically, but after a little more than a year they have worked out most of the kinks.

With an additional firefighter on the scene, the crew can ready the water supply faster, and the commander has a better opportunity to evaluate the fire. “In the initial minutes, it has made a huge difference,’’ Murphy said.

Though Holbrook also dispatches most of the county’s mutual-aid response units under the banner of Norfolk County Control, Fire Chief Edward O’Brien said he isn’t necessarily jockeying to have the regional center in his town.

“I’d be more comfortable going into a system if I had a partnership,’’ he said.

In a partnership, a group of towns would have representatives meet and vote on a budget, with a more active role than just paying a fee to another town. O’Brien said such a structure would ease fears about the loss of local control.

“Where people get concerned is, ‘Do I lose my voice?’ ’’ he said.

In addition to the efficiency of sharing employees, regional dispatch centers make it more affordable to keep up with advances in technology, since the member communities would share the cost of new equipment. Towns can also save money on training because they don’t have to constantly cross-train staff to handle dispatch duties. Plus, people who work only as dispatchers are more effective, O’Brien said, compared with a police officer, for instance, who may not have had a turn at the job in six months.

Frank Pozniak, executive director of the State 911 Department, part of the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, said the Hingham regional center should open in July or August. It won’t be the first in the state — Barnstable County, for one, provides regional dispatch on Cape Cod — but it will be the first center to open from a series of development grants the state began making in fiscal year 2009.

Regional dispatch enhances public safety, Pozniak said, because small operations can easily become overwhelmed, especially during a major incident. Cost savings should be part of the equation, he said, but regional centers can also speed response times in towns where a 911 operator has to transfer calls to a local department for a unit to be sent into action.

“In this business, time is of the essence.’’

The State 911 Department awarded the Holbrook group $60,000 for the Intertech study. Pozniak said Holbrook, Avon, Sharon, and Westwood constitute the core group working on the issue, and the other towns agreed to participate.

Pozniak does not anticipate that all the towns will share one dispatch center. Initially, three to six communities could work together, he said.

Asked whether he sees resistance to the state’s push for regionalization, Pozniak said resistance comes mainly from police departments concerned that without a local dispatcher, they will have to close their stations at night. To compensate, regional dispatch would monitor the stations on video and be able to let someone in the buildings if necessary, he said.

Proposed state regulations would require 911 operators to be certified in emergency medical dispatch. Communities face that hurdle alone unless they regionalize.

Lisa Weinthal, vice president of Intertech Associates, said the study is looking at logical next steps, including expansion of the Holbrook operation, other locations, and the issue of which communities might work together. She expects some larger Norfolk County communities, including Quincy, to still operate independently.

Intertech has conducted similar studies in New Jersey over the past 12 years, and the state now has numerous county dispatch operations.

In Massachusetts, where county government is minimal, regional dispatch requires an adjustment in thinking, Weinthal said. “Everyone wants their own. No one wants to give it up.’’

Jennette Barnes can be reached at

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