Select Board Votes To Go To NSR911


Manchester’s Select Board voted 4 to 1 Tuesday to move the town’s public safety dispatch to a regionalized, state-run facility in Middleton.

On one hand, the decision comes after exhaustive examination: 12 years of reviews, consultant reports and recommendations to regionalize its public safety dispatch operation.  The state is encouraging Manchester’s move to its North Shore Regional 911 operation in Middleton by offering the service at no cost until 2029.  

Other Essex County towns in the consortium include Essex, Wenham, Middleton, Topsfield and Amesbury.

But Tuesday’s vote also came after a non-binding Annual Town Election referendum vote last month where 55.5 percent of voters said they support keeping dispatch local and supported the estimated incremental $565,000 annual operating cost to do it.

In her opening remarks, Select Board Chair Becky Jaques said Tuesday that Manchester’s dispatch is staffed by good dispatchers who do an excellent job.  But, she said, Manchester faces costly public safety mandates including upgrades to records management systems and computer aided dispatch software.  

The role of the Select Board, she said, is to act as a fiduciary, with loyalty to the town’s long-term financial health of the community.  That requires looking at data, information, and facts.

“The job of the Select Board is to do what’s in the best interest of the town as a whole,” said Jaques.  “We have to make decisions based on facts, data, and logic.  Even when those decisions are unpopular.”

Approximately 40 people attended Tuesday’s meeting.  

Newly elected select board member Brian Sollosy, who won his seat last month by two votes and who ran in part on a promise to support local dispatch, was the lone dissenting vote Tuesday.  

Catherine “Cathy” Bilotta, who won her seat in last month’s election, pointed out that a 55 percent majority in the referendum article is far from a decisive, two-thirds majority that’s looked for to support permanent town decisions.  The referendum also had financial implications and financial votes require a super majority at town meeting.  

Last week, three Select Board members, Town Administrator Gregory Federspiel, Chief of Police Todd Fitzgerald, and Fire Dept. Chief Jason Cleary went to Middleton to meet with executives, and tour the regional dispatch facility.  For nearly all, this was a repeat visit.  They dived into details of how the partnership would work for Manchester and the operational capabilities of the center.  

Sollosy did not attend the tour, saying he didn’t need more information to make up his mind (“I don’t need to know how electricity works,” he said, equating the tour to an unnecessary layer of information in his dispatch position.)

Manchester’s dispatch operation is housed at the Police Dept. and it’s staffed largely by reserve police officers, but its mission is to support both Police and Fire Dept. calls, and most emergency calls are medical in nature, and EMT services reside within the Fire Department.

Currently, running dispatch locally costs $335,772 per year, after a 911 offset grant.  This includes a single “24/7” baseline dispatcher supporting incoming calls for police, fire department, and the DPW during off-hours as well as three full-time dispatchers working one of three daily shifts from Monday to Friday.  Weekends are covered by part-time dispatchers, reserve officers, or regular officers working overtime.  Dispatchers also serve as lobby receptionists, although in-person visits to the station are infrequent.  Manchester’s Fire Department has no lobby personnel.  

The central issue in dispatch, however, doesn’t lie in reconfiguring current dispatch services.  Instead, Manchester operates out of compliance with national fire safety requirements that call for two dispatchers working together 24/7.  EMT calls require dispatchers to stay on until help arrives, making them unable to answer other calls during that time.  Manchester would also face required software upgrades, supplemental equipment, and facility configuration requirements in case of onsite incidents, among others.  In the end, the cost of pulling local dispatch into compliance requires a significantly increased investment.

Chief Cleary has consistently supported the move to regionalized dispatch while Chief Fitzgerald has supported keeping dispatch local.  Both have said they’ll support whatever direction the town sets forth.  

On Tuesday, Finance Committee Chair Sarah Mellish said moving to regional dispatch is “a no-brainer” and that board voted unanimously earlier this year to support it.  The town, she said, is facing considerable expenses including an override to build a new elementary school in the District, a needed DPW facility, public safety headquarters, expensive capital upgrades at Sweeney Park and Tuck’s Point, and fortification of infrastructure connected to climate change.  

The state is offering Manchester the service free through 2029 to join the consortium.   The center uses a minimum of four 24/7 dispatchers, based on call volume.  More towns, more calls would prompt the center to add dispatchers.  The dispatch center would also cover harbormaster 911 calls, and off-hours DPW calls.  

Opponents of regional dispatch want to preserve the local, “small town” feel of local, in-person service.  It costs more, they say, but it’s worth it to retain that experience.

Manchester resident Andrew Lane said the Select Board would be “unwise to go against the voters.”  Fellow resident Ric Rogers agreed, saying the voters at last month’s town meeting are educated and understand what they were voting for:  supporting regional dispatch and the increased spending that goes with it.  The board, he said, should go with that directive.

Ann Harrison, who toured the Middleton facility, said regionalized dispatch is about robust service, not just money.  It’s the only way to assure coverage in the unlikely event of a big emergency where people may die unnecessarily.  

“There’s a lot of work that goes into backup,” Harrison said.

The next step is to define the proposal to begin negotiations.  The next meeting of the Select Board is Tuesday, July 5.

finance committee, ann harrison, brian sollosy, andrew lane, middleton facility, bilotta, todd fitzgerald, ric rogers, manchester’s select board, manchester’s fire department, jason cleary, elementary school, essex county, fire department, becky jaques, sarah mellish, gregory federspiel, regional dispatch, north shore regional 911, nsr911