Manchester officers push against move to regional dispatch

Full-time dispatcher and reserve Manchester police Officer Sean Mullins works in the town dispatch center, which is responsible for dispatching for the town's Police, Fire, Harbormaster and Public Works departments. The town is considering using a regional dispatch center. 

MANCHESTER — Members of the Manchester Police Department are still hesitant about the town looking to take its public safety dispatch operations to the North Shore Regional 911 Center in Middleton.

Selectmen and Town Administrator Greg Federspiel hosted a forum from last week to field questions from the public regarding the future of Manchester’s dispatch center. The town and fire Chief Jason Cleary would like to have two dispatchers on per shift, rather than the current one, who handles dispatch duties for the Police and Fire departments.

“Our objections to regionalization have always been about putting the needs of the community we serve first,” said Manchester police lead dispatcher Katie Elwell, on behalf of her fellow dispatchers, during a public forum Tuesday. “We do not believe that our community will achieve better services by joining an unproven and untested regional center with towns with which Manchester has minimal connections to. We perform services and take calls for residents that faceless outside dispatchers are simply not equipped to answer.”

Manchester police Reserve Officer Sean Mullins, who also works as a dispatcher on the 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. shift, sees the dispatch job from both sides.

“I’m completely comfortable working the road with one dispatcher,” he said. “We handle all issues with no problems. ... I’m comfortable with the current working conditions of one dispatcher on.”

In July at another forum, police Chief Todd Fitzgerald said he does not believe the current call volume warrants the need for a second dispatcher. At Tuesday’s forum, he noted that over the last five years, the department saw the most walk-ins in 2016, with 765. Most walk-ins happen during the 8 to 4 p.m. shift, and it is commonly in regards to dropping off paper work or renewing firearms licenses. During the midnight to 8 a.m. shift, the department sees around 40 to 50 walk-ins a year, and the majority of these are requests for police services.

One reason the town is looking to have two dispatchers it that OSHA regulations require fire departments with rosters that reach 16 or more to have at least four firefighters per shift. This allows departments to abide by OSHA’s “two-in, two-out” policy, which sees two firefighters working inside a fire scene and two outside for backup.

“This also comes into play for back-to-back ambulance calls,” Federspiel said during the forum “I think if I’m remembering correctly, we probably have in the vicinity of 70 to maybe 100 simultaneous calls in a given year. Again, you want a minimum of two people responding to each ambulance call and being able to take the patient to the hospital with one riding with the patient and in one driver.”

Currently, Manchester Fire has 12 firefighters plus one “floater” — a minimum of three firefighters per shift. The town reportedly has not had much luck securing new recruits either, according to Federspiel, as is the case across the nation. According to a study by the National Fire Protection Association, the number of U.S. volunteer firefighters has dropped from 884,600 in 1983 to 682,600 in 2017.

New policies set by the state have also caused some concern about future staffing shortages at Manchester Police. Last December, the Baker administration signed a sweeping police reform law, which, in part, requires reserve officers to receive the same training as full-time officers by July 1, 2024. Many of Manchester’s reserve officers serve as dispatchers.

“We have always relied very heavily on reserve officers for filling shifts for when a regular officer is on vacation or sick leave or during training et cetera,” said Federspiel. “(With this new policy,) we anticipate that we will most likely lose many of our reserve officers since they will now have that full officer training and they will be able to get full-time jobs.”

According to selectmen at the forum, the town estimates it will spend around $1.9 million for its current public safety dispatch set-up over the next five-year period. This includes $270,000 for a new console and dispatch software and hardware. Having two dispatchers per shift would bump up the cost to $3.8 million. If the town goes to regional dispatch, it would only be required to pay $18,000 to construct a “safe lobby” at the Manchester Police station, where an individual could lock him- or herself inside and contact an officer in the case of an emergency when no one is at the station.

North Shore Regional 911 Director Alyson Dell Isola said the center is “well under our budget of what we can handle at the regional center currently to keep those towns and cities at a zero cost.”

Any savings would be expected to go back to the town’s public Safety departments, according to Federspiel.

There is no guarantee the costs will stay at zero once a 10-year contract is up. However, even if North Shore Regional 911 decided to start charging, Federspiel expects it would still cost the town less than what it’s paying now.

“Another way to think of it is what was the charge when the sheriff’s office was running the regional center,” he said. “So, they were charging out a per-capita basis. Their charge was about $16 and some change per capita. That’s a few years old, (but)...we’re currently paying a little over $60 a head for our service. So there’s obviously an economy of scale.”

If the town chooses to sign on with the state-run North Shore Regional 911 Center it may take a little more than a year to start getting their services. Dell Isola said the center needs to complete a feasibility study to find what costs Manchester will bring on its end. This study will also give the town an in-depth look at all the costs associated with staying local versus going regional.

Federspeil told the Times that selectmen hope to make their final decision “sometime this fall” before fiscal year 2023 budget talks begin. Selectmen will reportedly discuss the next steps on the regional dispatch matter at their meeting on Monday.

Some forum attendees at asked why the choice of dispatch can’t be put up to a public vote. Selectmen Chairman Jeffrey Bodmer-Turner reiterated that dispatch is considered a town operation, and all matters related to town operations are handled by selectmen.

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

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

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