As part of the budget development process, both the Selectmen and the Finance Committee are examining the conditions of our dispatch service and are revisiting the option of having the service provided through the regional dispatch center in Middleton. Over the past nine years a few reports have been compiled on various options. Early start-up problems at the regional center along with concerns about how to serve visitors to the Police Station were the major factors in not switching earlier.
Currently, we provide dispatch services to both Police and Fire Departments from our own “in-house” operations within the Police Station. A few years ago, we merged both fire and police dispatching operations within the Police Department (the Fire Department used to handle dispatch duties for a fire incident after the initial call came through the Police Department but this took a firefighter away from the actual incident.)
Despite the best efforts of a great staff, the status quo has numerous deficiencies that need correcting. These deficiencies can be addressed 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.
Our deficiencies include: Staffing struggles – three full-time dispatchers provide 24 -hour coverage during the week but finding enough weekend coverage using reserves, part-time dispatchers or patrolman on OT can be a challenge and we lack the availability of an immediate second dispatcher dedicated for larger incident management like a large structure fire; Antiquated software - new computer aided dispatch software is needed for both Fire and Police; Formal Training for Dispatchers - training, especially fire-incident training, needs improvement.
In addition to providing dispatch service, our dispatchers handle walk-in traffic to the police station. Walk-in traffic is light. The average number of daily walk-ins for the past 4 years (prior to COVID) has been 1.4 a day. Most walk-ins occur during regular business hours with some evening times as well. It is very rare to have anyone coming to the station at night. In nearly 30 years there has been one case of someone rushing into the station with an emergency (fear of being followed in relation to a domestic dispute.)
Since the state has assumed operations of the regional dispatch center an improvement in operations has been noted. The center provides dispatch service for a handful of communities, including Essex, Wenham, Middleton and Topsfield. The Center provides state of the art equipment to member communities and currently offers its services at no cost. The state is offering this for an initial 10-year contract. (When the Sherriff’s Office ran the center there was a cost based on a community’s population.)
Moving to the regional center would be a change to our operations. We would no longer have our own dispatchers at our Police Station, who also serve as station receptionists. There are a range of options for handling this change. Some communities, like Essex, rely on a “safe lobby” where audio and video communications is available from the police station lobby directly to the dispatch center. 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. If Manchester were to move to the regional center for dispatch services, we would implement some combination of the above to continue to serve the occasional walk-ins to the station. New costs for staffing the station range from $46,000 to $200,000, the high end providing dedicated lobby coverage for both the day and evening shifts 7 days a week.
We currently spend about $390,000 on our dispatch operations and we receive an annual 911 grant of $70,000 to support it. The cost of upgrading our dispatch software comes to $190,000 with higher annual support cost of $15,000. Longer term communications equipment needs comes to $60,000. Conversely, if we were to switch to the regional center, we would avoid these costs, but we would need to spend $18,000 in upgrading the Police Station lobby to serve as a safe refuge to get help. Depending on how we provide lobby coverage, total annual savings would range from $136,000 to $290,000 with capital cost savings of some $232,000. Of course, cost is not the only factor here and assessing these other factors like adequacy of staffing for large emergencies, local control, relationships between dispatchers and front-line staff or residents are part of the equation.In the past some of these other factors have led residents to prefer keeping our own dispatch operations.
We are at a crossroads – either we need to reinvest in our own system, both from a capital equipment perspective and from a staffing perspective, or we join the regional center being run by the state. As with any choice, there are pros and cons to either option. The Selectmen look forward to hearing the public’s input as they continue to weigh which option is best for Manchester.