BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — MIDDLETON — An incident last week in which a dispatcher announced a Middleton fire box alarm to Wenham firefighters has exposed growing pains at the new Essex County Regional Emergency Communications Center.
The incident had the Middleton Fire Department taking back its dispatching duties from the center for the time being.
The town administrator of the center’s host community says “hiccups” with the new system are not enough to prevent Middleton from making the switch over next month. While the Fire Department may have switched back to doing dispatch, the switch is a temporary one.
”There are hiccups every time you turn around, but are they fatal flaws? No,” said Middleton Town Administrator Ira Singer, who sits on the center’s financial advisory board. “Everything is gradually being transitioned over, and it’s not without its hitches.”
While Middleton’s emergency 911 calls are being handled by the center on Manning Avenue at the Middleton Jail, fire and police dispatch are still being handled locally, Singer said.
The approximately $10 million, 10,000-square-foot state-of-the-art dispatch center was constructed over the past few years and went into service this summer. It was hailed as a way for communities to more efficiently and cost-effectively handle dispatch while freeing up police and firefighters.
Concerns about the center’s operations and skepticism from public safety unions dogged the center even before it was built. Danvers, whose top public safety officials at first touted its construction, has declined to join. It was originally supposed to manage dispatch for 13 communities. So far, six — Beverly, Wenham, Middleton, Topsfield, Amesbury and Essex — have agreed to join, though the center can accommodate more.
The Middleton Fire Department requested its dispatch back after a fire box alarm in Middleton mistakenly went out to the Wenham Fire Department on Oct. 8 around 6 a.m., said Maurice Pratt, assistant superintendent and director of communications for the Essex County Sheriff’s Department and Middleton Jail.
A dispatcher named Stephanie Brown was reportedly on the wrong frequency when a fire alarm call came in from Richardson’s Dairy on South Main Street (Route 114), Pratt said. Brown was previously a dispatch supervisor at the University of Georgia, Pratt said. She has had 240 hours of training and she was working with an experienced dispatcher at the time of the incident. She has been working at the center since Sept. 2.
“Our dispatcher was on the wrong frequency; she called for the location and she announced for Middleton Fire Department to respond. She did that on the Wenham Fire Department frequency,” Pratt said. Wenham received a voice announcement from Brown.
In listening to a replay of the call, Pratt said the dispatcher stated the fire alarm was in Middleton.
“She actually said, ‘Middleton Fire Department, you have an alarm at such and such [location],’” Pratt said.
There was no fire, and the alarm was a result of “a faulty device.” The tone automatically went out to the Middleton Fire Department radio system “so there was no lapse or delay of response or service,” Pratt said. “That is critical, critical.”
“This was a very correctable error,” Pratt said. “That being said, Stephanie has received counseling on this issue, and she is going to be retrained on this issue ... It was human error, a correctable error, with no repercussion.”
The dispatch center presently employs 16 regular dispatchers, while 28 are in training. All of them are state-certified, Pratt said.
Middleton police are also taking their time to cut over to the regional communications center.
“We are on a track to start in November,” said Middleton police Chief James DiGianvittorio, who said the Fire Department “took a step backward” while the center installs a new software system. DiGianvittorio said there were “a few issues” with the switch to the center, but he did not elaborate.
When asked if Middleton was pulling out of the center altogether, DiGianvittorio said: “Not true.”
DiGianvittorio said the police department is also waiting for the installation of a camera and radio system in the lobby of the station along Route 114, a system that would allow someone who comes in the lobby off-hours to speak directly with a dispatcher at the regional communications center.
The regional center still lacks a permanent communications tower, which would be built across the driveway from the building. A temporary tower has been put up.
“It serves our purposes fine,” Pratt said.
Today, all 911 cellphone calls in Essex County, 30 cities and towns in Middlesex County, and a community in Suffolk County will be routed to the center as it takes calls away from an overburdened State Police communications center in Framingham.
More than 70 percent of all 911 calls made nowadays come from cellphones, said Singer and Topsfield fire Chief Ron Giovannacci, who has been pushing for the creation of the regional dispatch center for years. Topsfield is still in the process of moving over its dispatch to the center.
“This is not an overnight thing, It’s a planned deliberative move,” Giovannacci said.
Politically, there are still those who are questioning the need for the regional dispatch center. In Topsfield, a selectmen’s meeting is scheduled for tonight in which police, fire and communications center personnel will speak on the issue, Pratt said. Selectmen have received a letter from a resident asking the town to pull out of the center, and there is a petition circulating around town, Giovannacci said.
Giovannacci said Topsfield Town Meeting has voted for the center, and the town has committed to it financially for the next five years.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.