The launching of a new and improved Gloucester emergency dispatch system run by the city's Police Department represents good news for residents.
Indeed, adopting the new system should indeed deliver a more effective and efficient response to local 911 emergency calls throughout the city, and is a good step toward improving the city's responses overall.
Yet it's important for city officials to view the emergency dispatch upgrade, which debuted last week, as just that — a first step. For it still fails to address Gloucester's ongoing top priority — the continued regular closures of the outlying fire stations, in Bay View especially. And, in some ways, it should only set the stage for other improvements.
In a nutshell, the new system works like this:
With three dispatchers manning the expanding Police Department dispatch center at all times, each 911 call is now fielded by two dispatchers, not just one, within the police station. One of those quickly calls the Fire Department, which includes the city's ambulance and rescue squads and can dispatch a crew to the emergency scene. The other dispatcher is now able to stay on the line with the caller while the ambulance or other emergency equipment are en route. And in some cases, the dispatcher can ease the caller's mind or offer advice on what to do until the emergency crew arrives on scene.
That might sound fairly basic, but it's a giant step forward from the previous system. In the bad old days — of May 2012 — the police dispatcher would take the initial 911 call, take down names, the location and type of emergency, then transfer the call to the Fire Department. The Fire Department's dispatcher would then generally ask the same questions, and then send an ambulance, with the caller then having to wait for police and the Fire Department to arrive. Efficient, it wasn't.
Yet, the new system is ultimately still only as effective as the ambulance response times. And that's a particular problem if the emergency is at a home or business or on the road in the villages of Annisquam, Bay View and especially Lanesville, and the Bay View station is closed.
Indeed, the idea of having an ambulance stationed at Bay View, and then getting sent to a Lanesville call seconds after a 911 report is logged downtown under the new system, would make a marked — perhaps life-saving — difference in response. But if that ambulance is still coming from the city's center, the improved dispatch system may make a difference in seconds, while the responders still need too many minutes to reach the scene.
The new dispatch format should open the door for considering other alternatives — perhaps even including shifting the ambulance service under the Police Department, or separating it out to its own department under a broader public safety division. But that will take extensive restructuring and coordination that can't begin until a new fire chief and new permanent police chief are both on board. And while the search for a fire chief should — after 10 months — be in its final stages, the search for a successor to Mike Lane, who has moved the department forward in more than three years under an interim role, remains in its infant stages.
In the short term, the conversion to this new dispatch system cries out for providing the money to keep the Bay View station along with West Gloucester's open on a regular basis, with a rescue unit in tow.
Yes, the new dispatch system helps in terms of communications.
But it does not address the city's primary emergency response issue of distance. That simply has to come next — and it should come now.