MANCHESTER — The long-running debate on whether the town should regionalize its dispatch services will continue when selectmen meet this Thursday.

A virtual public forum on the topic is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. — the meeting itself begins at 6:30 p.m. Information on how to join the meeting online or by phone is available at www.manchester.ma.us.

The town is considering two options.

"These deficiencies (with the current system) can be corrected either by bolstering our in-house operations or by joining the regional dispatch center that the state now operates in Middleton next to the county jail complex," according to a summary of the problem and options published last week on the town website, manchester.ma.us.

Manchester's current joint police and fire dispatch system is struggling to find necessary staffing,  the summary states. The town also would like to see its existing staff train more, particularly regarding fire incidents.

"Weekend coverage often a struggle using reserves, part-time dispatchers or patrolman on (overtime)," it states. "We lack a second dedicated dispatcher for larger incident management."

On top of that, dispatchers are working with antiquated software. The town spends $335,722 per year on its dispatchers. If the town decides not to go regional, it will need to pay for a new dispatch console, estimated to cost $190,000 by the town. New software and hardware is also required in five years time, the town states, which requires another $200,000 investment. 

"The state says they don't plan on charging ever, but they've guaranteed that it wont charge it for the first 10 years," said Town Administrator Greg Federspiel. "(North Shore Regional 911 Center) is funded through the state 911 program." 

With no dispatchers at the stations, the town will need to pay for front-desk staff during open hours. The town's written statement estimates this would cost between $46,000 to $250,000 per year.

In addition, the town will need to find ways to serve residents when no dispatch staff are available during off-hours.

"Some communities, like Essex, rely on a 'safe lobby' set up where audio and video communications are available from the police station lobby directly to the (Middleton) dispatch center," the town's statement reads. "Like Essex, our patrol officers are only minutes away from getting back to the station if needed. A lobby visitor can lock themselves in the lobby for safety. Other communities provide lobby coverage either through dedicated staff or by adding this duty to existing staff."

A "safe lobby" setup at Manchester Police Department is estimated to cost $18,000, according to the town.

The Manchester Police and Fire departments are split on the issue, although both agree something needs to be done to bolster their dispatch services.

"I would like to keep it here," said police Chief Todd Fitzgerald. "Most police departments around here who have not opted in a regional services have invested back into their local dispatches. We don't want to loose the personal touch of someone here in the lobby. It's always good to know that someone's in the building and able to respond. Two of the three dispatchers are reserve police officers, so they're prepared to help."

The Manchester Fire Department, on the other hand, favors switching over to the regional model. 

"In part this is driven by the Fire Department’s concern for having a second dedicated dispatcher for large fires or other emergency incidents," reads the town's statement.

Fire Chief Jason Cleary declined to comment on this story. 

"Both departments want the best for town, and both have different perspectives due to their different operations," Federspiel said. "For fire emergency and medical services, the gold standard is that the dispatcher will stay on the line with you until first responders arrive on scene. With only one dispatcher on, we can't guarantee that that will happen. The dispatchers have done their best to avoid that situation, but there have a couple times over the years." 

Over the past six years, the town has considered joining the Sheriff Department's regional dispatch, operated out of the Regional Emergency Communications Center in Middleton; and dispatch centers in Hamilton and Danvers. 

"At the conclusion of each study, the selectmen decided to stay with our in-house dispatch operations because the service was either ... not operating satisfactory ... or... cost savings were not sufficient to justify the switch," the town's summary notes.  

Michael Cronin may be contacted at 978-675-2708, or mcronin@gloucestertimes.com.

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