By Ethan Forman
---- — MIDDLETON — A new emergency communications center at the front of Middleton Jail on Manning Avenue — essentially rejected by public safety officials in Gloucester, Rockport, Manchester and other North Shore cities and towns — will soon provide emergency 911 dispatch for the town of Essex and five other North Shore communities, and likely handle emergency 911 cellphone calls for the regions well.
Proponents say the Essex County Regional Emergency Communications Center will help communities which face expensive upgrades to their emergency communications, and, more importantly, smooth public safety response.
“Over the long term, it will save a lot of money,” said Topsfield fire Chief Ronald Giovannacci, an early advocate for regional dispatch, “but the impetus for the project was not to save money. The impetus behind the project is to provide a better, more effective, more efficient service.”
When the $10 million, 10,000 square foot center opens, it will handle 911 police and fire calls for Amesbury, Beverly, Essex, Middleton, Topsfield and Wenham. After years of planning, the center broke ground in October. State 911 grants paid for its construction, technology and communications equipment.
It may also play an expanded role handling emergency 911 cellphone calls from throughout Essex County and a portion of Middlesex County, said Thomas Dubas, the center’s director, taking the load off the state police dispatch center in Framingham, where all of the state’s cellphone emergency calls are now sent.
“The state is very interested to see that this works,” Dubas said.
If the new center opens handling wireless 911 calls for the region, it will employ 45 people. If not, it will employ 20.
“There is an 80 percent chance we start with 45,” Dubas said.
Dubas said the center is committed to opening July 1 so that member cities and towns do not have to budget for emergency dispatch in the coming fiscal year. When it opens, it will handle 911 calls from six communities that encompass 80,000 people, but it has the capacity to do so for more than 200,000.
“This is built for growth,” Dubas said, pointing out where more workstations can be added in the communications room. “So as we get more communities, we can keep growing. We can accept, actually, some smaller communities now without even adding, but as we have to grow, we can grow seamlessly if you will.”
The building is, for the most part, is done, and includes battery-powered power supplies, dual boilers and backup generators to make sure the center remains operational no matter what. When it opens, three police and two fire dispatchers and a supervisor will handle calls in the main communications room.
In the next room, which has yet to be set up, dispatchers will answer wireless cellphone calls from the region. About 75 percent of calls coming into a dispatch center originate from cellphones, Dubas said.
Whether someone is at a local police or fire station answering the phone will be an individual decision of member communities. Dubas said Beverly and Amesbury will staff their stations, and Middleton will have limited hours of someone answering calls at its station. The intent of the center is to handle emergency 911 calls first, but it can also handle other “10-digit” calls as well.
“911 comes down to two things,” Dubas said. “Answer phone, send help.”
Topsfield’s fire chief said he has been working on a regional dispatch center proposal since 2005 on the premise small communities have a tough time paying for ever-evolving communications technology and services, with dispatcher training an afterthought.
But the center proved controversial when it was proposed in 2009, with questions about its operation, costs and the creation of another bureaucracy at the Sheriff’s Department. More than half of the 13 communities it was originally envisioned to support have opted out, including Gloucester and Cape Ann’s towns other than Essex.
In Gloucester, police, fire and other city officials all said they believed it was important that Gloucester dispatch calls be handled in-house by dispatchers and other personnel who inherently know the city — particularly its many address issues such as recognizing the differences between Atlantic Street and Atlantic Avenue, which sit on opposite sides of the Annisquam River and are a couple of miles apart.
Officials in other towns also questioned both the practicality of a regional dispatch service, and whether the project would generate meaningful savings. And municipal decisions were not without irony: Funding for the center was announced in Danvers in the spring of 2009, but the town has decided not to join.
Hamilton and Wenham have shared dispatch services for years, and while Wenham is joining, Hamilton is exploring shared regional dispatch with Ipswich. Questions have also surfaced about the hiring of Dubas as the director, after he served as the consultant on the project.
Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins said it made sense to hire someone who had built a regional dispatch center in the past, in this case in Pennsylvania.
In a letter in 2011, Beverly Mayor Bill Scanlon said the center could save the city $300,000 while offering improved service without having to invest in “expensive equipment, maintenance and space.”
Giovannacci insists this was not the sheriff’s idea. The working group went to Cousins to ask him if he would be interested in hosting the communications center. Cousins, a former state representative from Newburyport, said he wanted to accommodate a project that would help taxpayers save money.
One of the things that held back the idea was its cost, Cousins said.
“No city or town is being charged back the cost of it,” Cousins said. “The state, when they reauthorized the e911 legislation, put that into the incentive grants for capital expenditure.”
“The intent of the law was to free up police officers and firefighters to do what they do best,” Cousins added.
Cities and towns have local control, Cousins said. Police, fire and governmental advisory boards oversee the center, with Amesbury Mayor Thatcher Kezer the chairman of the governmental advisory committee.
Questions remain on whether other communities will join, and whether it will save member cities and towns money.
Dubas said members will not have to pay for the center, and the assessment for its operation is based on a $16.26 per person, per year cost, the same cost number that was floated four years ago.
“Different departments will save differently,” said Middleton police Chief James DiGianvittorio, the chairman of the center’s police advisory committee, “depending on how their structure is.” Middleton police do not have a dispatch budget, as the town’s dispatch is handled by the Middleton Fire Department, which will save money.
The move will allow Middleton police to add an officer on the road on the midnight shift and close the police station. The vestibule will be equipped so that those who come by with an emergency will be able to contact the dispatch center and police, DiGianvittorio said.
Giovannacci, who chairs the fire advisory committee, said Topsfield will save more than $100,000 a year, and it will save in the long run by reducing employee health care and retirement costs.
Topsfield’s dispatch, presently in the police station on Route 1, will entirely shift to the regional communications center, Giovannacci said.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.