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Impassioned Pleas Over Regional Dispatch in Chelmsford

July 24, 2018

CHELMSFORD -- Joining a regional dispatch center could provide savings for the town and professional advancement opportunities for dispatchers, but concerns about the potential for slower response times and the loss of knowledgeable dispatchers abound.

Dispatcher Lisa Demers said when maps and computers inevitably go down, “nothing’s going to replace people that know where things are.”

After initially deciding against it three years ago, the Board of Selectmen is now re-examining whether it should join Tewksbury and Dracut in the planned Northern Middlesex Regional Communications Center. Construction on the Tewksbury-based center is expected to begin in October.

Selectmen heard presentations and input from those on both sides of the issue at their meeting Monday night.

Town Manager Paul Cohen said Chelmsford would save an estimated $541,000 in operational and equipment expenses annually by joining the center, and still be able to have two dedicated dispatchers per shift.

However, that savings would be reduced by about $200,000 in order to keep the Police Department lobby staffed at all times, he said.

Cohen highlighted a number of other benefits of regionalizing, including increased staffing during events and emergencies, state grant funding and professional growth opportunities for dispatchers.

State 911 Department Executive Director Frank Pozniak said regionalizing presents an opportunity for state funding for a number of aspects, including technology support. He said he has witnessed at other regional centers how dispatchers have moved up into supervisory and director positions.

Police Chief Jim Spinney didn’t offer a direct recommendation as to which way he thinks the town should go. He said he recognizes the potential benefits, but also has concerns about making such a “huge change’ when police and dispatchers work well together to respond to calls.

In place of the two dispatchers per shift, Spinney said he would need to make four new hires to keep an officer at the front window at all times. He said there was discussion about putting a clerk there, but he decided an officer is needed to be able to handle the variety of challenging situations that can occur in the lobby.

Spinney also noted a $500,000 investment in the town’s dispatch center -- a complete remodel with state-of-the-art equipment -- about a year and a half ago.

Fire Chief Gary Ryan took a similar tone to Spinney, but said he’d rather have a seat at the table sooner than later.

If Chelmsford gets in now, Ryan said, the town can be involved in choosing a director and operational software, among other decisions.

“if this is going to happen, I want to have some input,” Ryan said.

The town’s dispatchers union remains against regionalization and believes Chelmsford should retain its community-based dispatch.

Dispatcher Richard Demers said quick thinking by knowledgeable, experienced dispatchers enhances the safety of police, firefighters and the community.

He gave an example of a manhunt for a bank robber that attempted to steal two cars before taking off on foot through the woods. Richard Demers’ own quick decision-making helped police to get on the right track to find the man, call in additional resources and resulted in a call to put the Westlands School on lockdown during the search, he said.

In the three years since Chelmsford last discussed regional dispatch, the town has made many investments in its own dispatch center, because it knows the system works, Richard Demers said. Meanwhile, Dracut and Tewksbury have not done that, he said.

“They sat there and waited while that big carrot was sitting out in front of them, hoping that the state would come through. The town is ahead of everybody -- let’s keep it that way,” he said to applause from other dispatchers and supporters in the audience.

Selectmen will hear additional input on regionalization at their next meeting.

Follow Alana Melanson at facebook.com/alana.lowellsun or on Twitter @alanamelanson.

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