SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Local News

April 10, 2014

Dispatch center under capacity

Communities waiting for upgrades before jumping on board

MIDDLETON — The $11 million Essex County Regional Emergency Communication Center opened at Middleton Jail last June, but so far, only two of the six expected communities, Wenham and Essex, have fully joined, said Moe Pratt, a spokesman for the center and the Essex County Sheriff’s Department.

Middleton has partial police and fire dispatch capabilities through the center. Three additional communities, Topsfield, Amesbury and Beverly, are waiting for upgrades to be completed.

Pratt said there is no rush to bring communities on board.

“We are going to do it right, period,” he said.

Despite its unused space, Pratt said the center is bustling. Under an agreement with the state, the center handles 911 calls made from cellphones in Essex County, 32 communities in Middlesex County and one in Suffolk County, Pratt said. These calls had been handled by an overburdened state police communications center in Framingham.

To provide around-the-clock coverage, the 10,000-square-foot center employs 49 people, 44 of whom are dispatchers, Pratt said. That’s up from 16 regular dispatchers with 28 in training last October.

When it was first proposed, the center was intended to streamline the functions of and reduce costs for dispatch, freeing up police and fire resources.

While other states have large regional dispatch centers, in Massachusetts, it’s a function that is mostly handled locally. Funding for the center comes from an “intragovernmental service agreement” to handle state 911 calls, a state 911 grant for development and construction costs, and assessments from communities, which pay at a rate of $16.26 per resident.

Getting the center up and running has been a challenge.

In October 2013, there was a well-publicized hiccup when a dispatcher announced a Middleton fire-box alarm to Wenham. The error resulted in Middleton taking back its fire dispatching duties for a time.

Essex and Wenham came on last June, and the center has “a wonderful working relationship” with the towns, Pratt said.

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