GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

June 22, 2013

Essex leads switch to regional dispatch

By Jonathan Phelps
Staff writer

---- — MIDDLETON — Essex will be the first town to switch over to the new regional emergency communications center at the front of Middleton Jail next week.

Essex will start using the new dispatch system on Monday, followed by Wenham on Wednesday, according to the Essex County Sheriff’s office.

Essex Police Chief Peter Silva said there has been much behind-the-scenes planning to prepare for the switch.

“We are expecting a very smooth transition,” he said.

Wenham Town Administrator Mark Andrews said the transition includes the installation of new antenna equipment, upgrading phone systems and providing training on new equipment.

“This is the culmination of a number of years of public safety planning for new technology and service to the public,” Andrews said. The center will provide the town with more modern technology in dispatching emergency crews, he said.

“There shouldn’t be any dramatic changes,” said Wenham police Chief Thomas Perkins. “The phone numbers will all remain the same.

Maurice Pratt, assistant superintendent for the Essex County Sheriff’s Department, said work was done this week to tie in all the different phone systems, computers and radio systems.

“This has been a collaboration of a lot of people and we are confident we will be ready for Monday,” he said.

“This is a step in creating a unified public safety network for Essex County,” Pratt said. “It is going to be a better service for the public and emergency services will be able to better share information.”

After years of planning, ground was broken for the Essex County Regional Emergency Communications Center in October. State grants paid for its construction, technology and communications equipment.

When the $10 million, 10,000 square foot center is fully operational, it will also handle 911 police and fire calls for Amesbury, Beverly, Middleton and Topsfield. That’s only a fraction of what it’s designed to handle, however. The six communities encompass 80,000 people, but the center has the capacity to handle an area with more than 200,000, Pratt said.

The center proved controversial when it was proposed in 2009, with questions about its operation, costs and the creation of a bureaucracy at the Sheriff’s Department. Many police unions objected to losing dispatcher jobs locally. More than half of the 13 communities that it was originally envisioned to support have opted out — including the city of Gloucester, as well as Rockport and Manchester.

Silva, however, maintained from the start that the center is a good deal for Essex, and said that’s still very much the case, given that it offers cutting-edge equipment, technology and a record management system that the town couldn’t afford otherwise.

“We are working with very dated, obsolete equipment,” Silva said. “We are working like dinosaurs here in an archaic building.”

Through the regional center, there will also be several upgrades made to the Essex police station, including installation of a phone and camera system for people to call into the new dispatch center in Middleton from the lobby, day and night.

The feeds, Silva said, will be patched into the cruiser laptops, and new software will relay all information to these laptops directly; all call history and details from a police visit can be recorded and easily pulled up for future use.

In addition, there will also be an intercom within the Essex lobby, should anyone need to get in touch with an officer directly.

“It’s not a perfect solution,” Silva said, adding the center was ideal considering the relatively small amount of foot traffic in Essex station’s lobby.

The town will be losing three dispatchers from its own facility, but Silva said regional dispatch centers like this are “wave of the future” and provide advance systems for towns in a cost-effective way.

“This is almost designed for this community. You have the same people answering the calls, but the phone is just ringing somewhere else,” Silva said. “This is just a smarter and better way of doing business.”

Staff writer James Niedzinski contributed to this report. He can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3455, or at jniedzinski@gloucestertimes.com.

Jonathan Phelps can be reached at 978-338-2527 or at jphelps@gloucestertimes.com.