By Mac Cerullo
---- — With the services to Essex and Wenham now up and running, the new Essex County Regional Emergency Communications Center in Middleton is awaiting its other member communities, with all now tentatively slated to be on board by October.
While Essex and then Wenham began using the service the week of June 24, Topsfield and Middleton will now soon follow them in the late summer, while Amesbury and Beverly will join in the fall.
Once Amesbury and Beverly come aboard, the $10 million, 10,000 square foot regional dispatch center will service more than 80,000 people living in Essex County, only a fraction of the 200,000 people the facility is capable of serving. But several other communities, including Gloucester and others on Cape Ann, turned down the opportunity.
The center will also become the answering point for all cell phone calls made to 911 in Essex County, along with a sizable portion of Middlesex County. These calls are currently handled by Massachusetts State Police.
The Amesbury Police Department will be preparing to move its communications functions to the new facility.
Chief Kevin Ouellet said the current plan is for police to make the transition to Middleton in late October, and prior to the move he said his priority is making sure the staff is properly trained on the new systems in time for the move.
“We have to train the officers and the IT people, and that’s where they are for the next three weeks, three days a week, eight hours a day,” Ouellet said. “Then it gets brought back to our department, they’ll be training our officers sometime in September.”
When Amesbury transitions in the fall, the city will cap the six charter members using the new, state-of-the-art dispatch facility. Ouellet said it’s anticipated that more communities will opt into the dispatch center in the future, but as the facility gets off the ground the focus will be on smoothing out the system and ironing out any problems that arise. He added that Essex and Wenham have been great in this regard so far.
“They’re kind of learning the system and making small changes as they go along that better fit all of our communities,” Ouellet said.
While Essex had some initial phone issues in the first few days of the new system, it has been running smoothly since. Anyone who calls the Essex Police Department — whether on the 911 emergency line or the Essex deparetment’s business phone – is initially connected with the Middleton dispatch center, but the center then transfers business calls back to the Essex department, and that hasn’t been a problem, Essex Police Chief Peter Silva has said.
Since the facility was first proposed in 2009, one of the primary points raised by proponents was that the regional dispatch center would save communities money while providing access to technologies that most towns and cities could never afford on their own.
In Amesbury’s case, it is expected that the switch to the regional dispatch center will save Amesbury $238,125 in this coming fiscal year alone, according to Mayor Thatcher Kezer. The move also allowed the city to eliminate the public safety communications line item from the budget, although some services had to be absorbed into the police budget, including staff for walk-in traffic and prisoner watch.
The existing public safety dispatchers will remain in Amesbury until the time comes for the move, but Ouellet said one interesting change that has already happened is they are now officially employees of the state, and not the Amesbury Police.
“They’re now working under our roof, but they’re employees of the regional communications center,” Ouellet said, “which is a little different for us.”