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June 1, 2011

Massachusetts towns explore shared dispatch

By Jack Minch
Lowell Sun

LUNENBURG, Mass. — Four towns — Lunenburg, Lancaster, Shirley and Harvard — and Devens are exploring a consolidation of their police, fire and ambulance dispatch services to save money and eliminate duplication, an official of the state authority developing Devens said yesterday.

If approved, it would take at least another year to put in operation, said George Ramirez, of Lowell, executive vice president of operations for MassDevelopment.

Devens Fire Chief Tom Garrity initiated the idea after receiving a grant from the state 911 Department about a year ago, Ramirez said.

"We thought it made sense to explore the possibility of using that money to create a true regional dispatch center," Ramirez said. "The reason I say true, (I mean) not one that is run by Devens or run by MassDevelopment. It's one that all the entities that belong to it run."

A regional communications center for communities that border each other could be beneficial, Ramirez said.

"It does not make sense for the town of Shirley to have its own E-911 and Devens the next town over to have one, and Harvard to have one, but it makes sense to group them together and save money," he said.

The communities are developing a memorandum of understanding on how the proposed communications center would be run.

MassDevelopment's engineering department is looking for suitable space at Devens for a communications center, and a finance team is putting together a potential budget, Ramirez said.

It is not clear what would become of the dispatchers the five communities now employ.

Opening a regional communications center can be a long project, said Terrel Harris, spokesman for the state's Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, which includes the 911 Department. The grant money is provided to determine what problems a regional effort would face and whether they can be overcome, he said.

It was not clear yesterday how much Devens' grant is worth.

The first regional project, funded by the state about three years ago, is scheduled to go in service in July, Harris said. The Hingham Project includes Hingham, Hull, Cohasset and Norwell, and so far the state has funded $5.3 million, he said.

"We are encouraging regionalization if feasible," Harris said.

A few years ago, Gov. Deval Patrick's administration formed a regionalization commission headed by Lt. Gov. Tim Murray to study the potential for regionalizing services, including 911, said Lunenburg Town Manager Kerry Speidel.

Regional communications centers are common across the country.

"Obviously, it is a big change, but it's not something that has not been done," Speidel said. "It's done in Massachusetts and done across the country, but it definitely would be a change and there would be adjustments."

A regional dispatch center offers the opportunity for a more uniform approach to providing the service and training, said Lancaster acting Deputy Fire Chief Michael Hanson.

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Firefighters and police officers have in-service training for updates on professional issues and emergency medical technicians have refresher courses, but there are usually no training programs for dispatchers, Hanson said. Often, small towns rely on on-the-job training for dispatchers.