NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Opinion

October 18, 2013

Start-up pains for dispatch center

The “hiccups” in the performance of the new Essex County Regional Communications Center are being used by opponents of the operation as an argument for pulling towns out of the regional operation, delaying joining the collaborative, or scuttling it all together.

While we believe that shouldn’t happen – the new dispatch center should eventually save taxpayers money – neither should the project’s “growing pains” be minimized or brushed aside.

Last week, for example, a dispatcher at the regional center announced a Middleton fire box alarm to Wenham firefighters.

“Our dispatcher was on the wrong frequency,” Maurice Pratt, assistant superintendent and director of communications for the Essex County Sheriff’s Department and Middleton Jail told reporter Ethan Forman. “She called for the location and she announced for Middleton Fire Department to respond. She did that on the Wenham Fire Department frequency.”

Pratt said there was no fire, and there was “no lapse or delay of response or service. That is critical, critical.”

The dispatcher involved in the incident is receiving extra training, Pratt said.

Still, the Middleton Fire Department has temporarily taken back its dispatch responsibilities from the new center. Essex, another of the six communities committed to the endeavor, has had trouble accessing its own logs.

“There are hiccups every time you turn around, but are they fatal flaws? No,” Middleton Town Administrator Ira Singer, a member of the center’s financial advisory board, told Forman. “Everything is gradually being transitioned over, and it’s not without its hitches.”

The $10 million center opened this summer. It was originally intended to serve 13 communities. So far only six – Beverly, Wenham, Middleton, Topsfield, Amesbury and Essex have signed on.

The effort at regionalization has run into resistance from public safety unions and residents and elected officials opposed to any kind of change or perceived surrender of control. There is, however, a real opportunity for improvements in service and cost to the taxpayers. Beverly Mayor William Scanlon, for example, estimates joining the regional center would save his city $300,000 a year, money that could be used to put more officers on the streets. Amesbury has predicted a savings of about $200,000 a year. Essex, meanwhile, would never have been able to pay for the communications upgrade afforded by joining the initiative.

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