By Jonathan Phelps
---- — MIDDLETON — Essex will be the first town to switch over to the new regional 911 center on the Middleton Jail campus next week — and Wenham will be right behind.
Essex will start using the new dispatch center on Monday and Wenham on Wednesday, according to the Essex County Sheriff’s office.
Essex police Chief Peter Silva said there has been much behind-the-scenes planning to prepare for the switch. “We are expecting a very smooth transition,” he said.
Wenham Town Administrator Mark Andrews said the transition includes installing new antenna equipment, upgrading phone systems and providing training on new equipment.
“This is the culmination of a number of years of public safety planning for new technology and service to the public,” Andrews said. The center will provide the town with more modern technology in dispatching emergency crews, he said.
“There shouldn’t be any dramatic changes,” said Wenham police Chief Thomas Perkins, noting that Wenham has already been sharing a dispatch services with Hamilton. “The phone numbers will all remain the same.”
Wenham has already changed the programming of its radios in the station and in cruisers. Police station operations and hours will remain the same.
Maurice Pratt, assistant superintendent for the Essex County Sheriff’s Department, said work was being done this week to tie in all the different phone systems, computers and radio systems.
“This has been a collaboration of a lot of people, and we are confident we will be ready for Monday,” he said. “This is a step in creating a unified public safety network for Essex County. It is going to be a better service for the public, and emergency services will be able to better share information.”
After years of planning, the Essex County Regional Emergency Communications Center broke ground in October. State grants paid for its construction, technology and communications equipment.
When the $10 million center is fully operational, it will also handle 911 police and fire calls for Beverly, Middleton, Topsfield and Amesbury. That’s only a fraction of what it is designed to handle, however. Those six communities encompass an area with 80,000 people, but the center has the capacity to handle an area with more than 200,000, Pratt said.
The center proved controversial when it was proposed in 2009, with questions about its operation, costs and the creation of a bureaucracy at the Sheriff’s Department. Many police unions objected to losing dispatcher jobs locally. More than half of the 13 communities that the center was originally envisioned to support have opted out.
But Silva said it’s a good deal for Essex, offering cutting-edge equipment, technology and a record-management system that the town couldn’t afford otherwise.
“We are working with very dated, obsolete equipment,” he said. “We are working like dinosaurs here in an archaic building.”
There will be several upgrades made to the Essex police station, including installation of a phone and camera system so people can call into the new dispatch center in Middleton from the lobby, day and night. The feeds will be patched into the cruiser laptops, Silva said.
Silva said regional dispatch centers like this are “the wave of the future” and provide advanced systems for towns in a cost-effective way.
“This is almost designed for this community. You have the same people answering the calls, but the phone is just ringing somewhere else,” he said. “This is just a smarter and better way of doing business.”
Staff writer Jonathan Phelps can be reached at 978-338-2527 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at JPhelps_SN.