SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 17, 2014

Town looks to share dispatch services

By Jonathan Phelps
Staff Writer

---- — HAMILTON — The town is reaching out to Ipswich and Manchester-by-the-Sea to explore the possibility of combining dispatch centers.

The move has been in the works for years, since Wenham’s decision to leave the Hamilton center and join the new, $10 million regional dispatch center in Middleton. Hamilton officials had also looked into joining the regional center but decided against it.

Town Manager Michael Lombardo said the town put out a request for quotes to determine the probable cost of hiring a private firm to prepare a report on combining the centers. New Hampshire-based Municipal Resources Inc. was the only company to respond to the request.

Before a firm is hired, Lombardo said he will have discussions with Ipswich Town Manager Robin Crosbie and Manchester Town Administrator Gregory Federspiel. The work would include looking into infrastructure and technology, “so we have good information to consider some sort of regional effort or other solutions,” Lombardo said.

”We need to decide if this is worth moving forward with,” he said.

Crosbie said Ipswich is interested in exploring the idea further, but thinks the town should look into possible grants to pay for the consultant.

Marc Johnson, chairman of the Hamilton Board of Selectmen, said hiring such a firm would be one of the first steps to see if the project is feasible.

”It is to evaluate systems and to write a report to share with town managers and administrators to see it they are compatible,” he said.

Last year, selectmen voted to spend an additional $180,000 to run the town’s dispatch center alone after Wenham switched to the regional dispatch center in June. Police Chief Russell Stevens, dispatcher Anne Marie Cullen, fire Chief Philip Stevens and Lombardo all recommended that the town keep its own dispatch center.

Johnson said the board has been looking at options for combining services with surrounding towns since the vote was taken a year ago. Lombardo has been in charge of reaching out to other towns, he said.

”We decided a year ago to go at it alone and to start discussions with other communities,” Johnson said. “At the time, they were at a different place in their decision cycle. Now they are more willing to have those conversations.”

Johnson said the town’s dispatch center is modern and capable of partnering with other towns.

“We would love to find a way to partner with other communities to take advantage of it,” he said.

He also said Hamilton might be willing to have its dispatch located somewhere else — though not, at least at this point, as part of the regional center in Middleton.

The regional center in Middleton was supposed to manage dispatch for 13 communities, but so far, only six — Beverly, Wenham, Middleton, Topsfield, Amesbury and Essex — have agreed to join. The approximately $10 million, state-of-the-art dispatch center was constructed over the past few years and went into service last summer.

It is now handling dispatch for Essex and Wenham and taking calls for Middleton, according to Maurice Pratt, assistant superintendent and director of communications for the Essex County Sheriff’s Department and Middleton Jail. The center is taking 911 calls for 67 communities, he said.

Lombardo said all the towns and cities were scheduled to be online at the center by now, but it is “still having difficulties” that need to worked out. He also has expressed concerns over the long-term cost. For example, he said, there is talk about upgrades to unify the systems within five years, but there is nothing in the contract about who will foot the bill.

There are also questions about the staffing model, town officials said.

”There are still a lot of unanswered questions,” Lombardo said.

Staff writer Jonathan Phelps can be reached at 978-338-2527 or by email at jphelps@salemnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at JPhelps_SN.