Jul. 25—MANCHESTER — A decision on whether the town will move its dispatch operations to the North Shore Regional 911 Center in Middleton is expected to be made in September.
Between now and then, the town hopes to hold a number of public forums for residents to ask questions and voice their opinions on the future of Manchester's emergency dispatch service.
The first such forum was held Thursday night during a virtual s electmen's meeting held over Zoom. At its peak, over 70 people tuned in, either online or by phone. Currently a nother forum has yet to be scheduled.
On Thursday, police Chief Todd Fitzgerald and fire Chief Jason Cleary had an opportunity to share their different outlooks on the situation. Fitzgerald has stated in the past that he hopes the town will keep dispatch at the police station, while Cleary wishes to move to North Shore Regional in Middleton.
Joining the regional dispatch center under a 10-year contract will not cost the town a dime. The town will, however, need to spend between $46,000 and $250,000 per year for front-desk staff during the station's open hours and an estimated $18,000 to create a "safe lobby," where residents can lock themselves inside and contact an officer in the case of an emergency when no one is at the station.
Conversely, if the town decides to keep its dispatch services "in house," it will need to invest in a new, $190,000 dispatch console and $200,000 worth of dispatch software and hardware within the next five years.
Chiefs on dispatch
Despite their disagreements, both chiefs made it clear at the forum that there is no conflict between the departments.
"This is not a police versus fire issue," said Fitzgerald. "I think Chief Cleary and I both have expressed our positions and needs and concerns regarding our current operations and the Middleton center. ... We're too small to be in-fighting and against each other, and that's not going to happen."
Cleary concurred with Fitzgerald.
"It is true, we do work well together," he said. "That won't change regardless of who's sending us calls and whoever is on the other side of the radio. .. I want to assure people, I was not hired under the auspices that I was planning on moving dispatch out of town, I'm not recommending it because some kind of backroom deal that I'm going to get staff if we save money ... and in no way am I trying to sabotage our current dispatch to make a point."
Fitzgerald said the current call volume dispatch receives, in his opinion, does not warrant the need for a second dispatcher. Towns similarly sized to Manchester, he noted, also only have one dispatcher on call at a time.
"Manchester is a heavily service-oriented community," he said. "It will definitely change the face of the Police Department if it's the town's decision to go to with the Middleton regional facility."
In response, Cleary noted that with two dispatchers, calls for police and fire services can be prioritized separately. On top of that, each dispatcher at North Shore Regional has a supervisor to help out at all times of the day during severe emergencies.
"The biggest thing I see with respect to the two levels of service is the degree of safety," Cleary continued. "There is safety and there are higher degrees of safety. ... I'm merely looking at the facts of the degree of service and redundancy and the cost savings the regional center can offer us versus what the current model is or the proposed model will be if we stay, which still will be closer but won't be the equivalent of the services we'd get from the regional (center)."
If the town decided to stay put, Fitzgerald said another dedicated dispatcher would need to be hired to cover shifts now handled by Manchester Police reserve officers working overtime, as well as upgraded record management and dispatch software.
Finance backs regional
Many residents asked a variety of questions during public comment. Those who did voice their opinion erred on the side of keeping dispatch services in Manchester.
Finance Committee Chairwoman Sarah Mellish chimed in to discuss her committee's support to move to the regional center.
"We felt it was worth while to free up money and to divert it to other areas of public safety," she said. "Our concern was that we have a lot of potential public safety expenses coming up and the regional center seems to provide the services we needed we lost one half of our dispatchers in the last year, so we don't have a lot of local knowledge anymore."
Mark Bruno, a Manchester resident, spoke about his experience working with North Shore Regional as an Amesbury Fire Department lieutenant.
"It's no secret that we've haven't been exactly happy," he said. "I'm still getting inaccurate dispatch times. I still get dispatches to incorrect addresses ... I just hope Manchester doesn't have some of the same issues that we've had."
Another issued Bruno pointed out was that North Shore Regional does not have the technology to monitor the radio frequency Amesbury on-ground firefighters use to communicate at a fire scene.
"The infrastructure doesn't exist," he said. "If one of my men calls a mayday, the dispatcher will not hear it. ... There have been many mayday calls that have been missed by the incident commanders over the years where an astute dispatcher does pick it up."
Michael Cronin may be contacted at 978-675-2708, or firstname.lastname@example.org.