BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — 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.
The fact that the other four communities are not fully on board does not mean things are going wrong.
“One of the reasons we didn’t set a schedule was we wanted to do things properly, safely and efficiently,” Pratt said.
Plans are to bring Topsfield on within the next month or so. An issue with fire alarm connectivity has been addressed, and there are plans to install a camera in the police station vestibule in case someone comes into the station and no one is there. Topsfield is also awaiting software which will allow regional dispatchers to generate accident reports for officers.
Amesbury cannot join until the center builds a 250-foot tower, which will keep communications signals between the center and the city from being blocked. The 80-foot temporary tower is not tall enough. Pratt said the tower should be finished by May or June.
Beverly is waiting for fire alarm connectivity, he said.
“They should be coming over fairly soon,” Pratt said.
In host community Middleton, the RECC answers all 911 calls, and there is partial police and fire dispatch.
“Right now, we are waiting for software for an accident module,” said Middleton police Chief James DiGianvittorio. The software will allow regional dispatchers to create accident reports that officers can fill out electronically.
Fire Department calls go to the regional center, and the center dispatches fire calls with some exceptions. With major fires, box alarms, fire alarms and reports of odors inside buildings, the center relays those calls to Middleton. The center dispatches medical aid, accidents and other calls.
“This is their request,” Pratt said. “We are here to work with Middleton.”
The regional center was first proposed several years ago for 13 communities. So far, six have agreed to join. The center has faced skepticism from public safety unions. Danvers selectmen voted against the idea in 2009 over concerns of creating more bureaucracy and costs.
Danvers, however, needs to upgrade its police station’s communications center, and a recent study recommends a $4.5 million to $6.5 million addition to the station, depending on which of three options the town might choose.
Selectmen Chairman Gardner Trask said the board should reconsider joining the regional center. In comparison to the study’s findings, joining the regional center would cost the town $430,000 a year.
Still, Trask said he does not want any Danvers civilian dispatchers to lose their jobs if the town joins the regional dispatch center.
“I just want to have the discussion,” Trask said.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.