Dispatch Discussions Continue
By Gregory T. Federspiel
Discussions continue regarding how best to provide public dispatch services at the Selectmen’s meeting on Thursday, July 22. The Board will host another public forum as part of their regular meeting via Zoom (check the agenda on the Town’s web site for log in information and timing.)
We have come to a critical point with dispatching. There are deficiencies with our current operation which must be corrected. We have two basic choices: reinvest in our “in-house” operations or switch over to the state-run North Shore Regional 911 Center in Middleton. As with most choices, there are pros and cons to each option.
Current operations suffer from occasional staffing shortages. This comes in two forms. We have one dispatcher on duty at a time. During a critical call, this single dispatcher must juggle the needs of the critical call while still trying to manage any new in-coming calls. During a longer lasting emergency event – an active fire, an involved car crash, etc. – this can compromise the safety of the first responders and victims of the incident unless we can add a second dispatcher quickly by calling someone in. The recommended standard for EMS and Fire calls is to have a dedicated dispatch operator for each call. Our current model does not meet this standard. To guarantee that we do, we would need to double our current staffing. The regional service typically has 4-6 dispatchers on at any time. Having a dedicated dispatcher for critical calls is a top concern of Fire Chief Cleary and our fire fighters.
The other struggle with staffing we have is weekend coverage. We rely on part-time dispatchers for weekend coverage. It is increasingly difficult to fill these weekend shifts. We have had to require police officers to work overtime more often lately to cover a shift. Hiring a fourth full-time dispatcher and putting all dispatchers on the same 4 on/2 off schedule as police officers would help alleviate this growing problem.
We also lack computer-aided dispatch software. Both Fire and Police would benefit from a modern dispatching platform. This software is expensive – initial cost is around $190,000 and annual costs run about $15,000. We either need to purchase this new software or join the North Shore 911 Center which provides this in their service. Both Chief Fitzgerald and Cleary see the benefit of obtaining a much-improved software platform to manage and track all service calls.
Under our current in-house dispatch operations, the dispatchers also provide services to anyone who walks into the Police Station lobby, a service Police Chief Fitzgerald would like to continue. The number of walk-ins is low – averaging about 1.4 per day during the four years prior to COVID. It is extremely rare that someone with an emergency is rushing into the Police lobby. In the last thirty years this has happened once or twice. When a medical or fire call comes in the Fire Station is usually left unstaffed, a situation that has not caused a problem.
Nonetheless, should we want to continue to staff the police lobby there are ways to do so even if the dispatching operations move to the regional center. Staffing it 24/7 as it is currently would cost almost the same as providing dispatch services in-house. While not offering much in the way of savings, this approach could gain us the extra services of the reginal dispatch center. Providing lobby staffing for the day and evening shifts, but not the midnight shift saves roughly $125,000 annually. Savings up to $225,000 a year are possible while still providing lobby coverage during the day and half of the evening shift, which covers almost all of the historic walk-in traffic. Other communities have gone to virtual lobby coverage through audio/video connections to the regional dispatch center with the ability to have a patrol officer arrive within minutes to a lobby that can be locked from the inside. Under this last scenario, we maximize our dollar savings at over $335,000/year plus the savings on capital needs.
As noted in an earlier article, the decision regarding in-house versus regional dispatching is not just about dollars. Some argue for keeping the service local. Others feel we can receive more robust dispatching service from the regional center. At the recent Town Meeting, the majority of voters wanted to keep talking about the pros and cons of the two choices we have. Attend Thursday’s forum to ask your questions and/or lend your perspective as the Selectmen continue to assess what is best for the community.