Devens Gets $500,000 for Dispatch Hub

September 22, 2009 : The Lowell Sun, by Mary E. Arata

DEVENS – The state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security has awarded $500,000 to the Devens Fire Department and MassDevelopment. The money is the first piece in funding a regional police and fire dispatch center.

It’s proposed that such a communication hub will be located at the yet-to-be-constructed Devens Public Safety Building at 182 Jackson Road.

An application is also in the works for another $1.28 million toward the center’s construction. The hope is that surrounding towns buy into the center to defray the construction and ongoing management costs.

MassDevelopment spokesman Mark Sternman said town administrators for Ayer, Harvard and Shirley will meet Sept. 30 to consider the concept.

Sternman says, at this point, the three towns are the only communities involved in talks with Devens.

A project narrative states that up to four entities could be accommodated under the proposed plan. The grant application cites only Harvard, Shirley and Devens participation, but Ayer is also considering the idea. Between the three communities, the towns employ 12 full-time dispatchers, three part-time dispatchers and various “fill-ins” at about 100 hours a year.

It’s proposed the Devens Regional Emergency Communications Center would result in “a substantial savings” by reducing the head count to eight full-time dispatchers, one full-time supervisor, three part-time dispatchers and 10 “fill-ins.”

First year savings of $164,469 would help the towns defray the buy-in costs, according to the narrative. The Harvard Police Department’s dispatch center would be compatible with the Devens’ system and could serve as a regional back-up dispatch location.

The narrative states a regional dispatch center serving Devens, Harvard and Shirley would cover 49 square miles containing 14,354 residents and 10,000 workers, as well as three prisons and a regional hospital.

Last December’s ice storm taxed emergency service providers throughout the area. The financial storm continues as expenses mount and state aid dwindles for cities and towns. It’s those conditions that have Shirley Selectman Andy Deveau keen on the regionalization concept.

Shirley opted not to replace its recently retired police chief, resulting in short-term savings.

“We’re at a point where we need to consider making some sort of move on this because we now have an acting police chief. It’s working OK but it’s not a solution,” said Deveau.

Deveau is concerned about the tight window of opportunity that must be met. To be reimbursed the $1.28 million in construction costs, qualifying projects must start after Sept. 1 and be complete by June 30, 2010 per the State 911 Public Safety Answering Point and Emergency Communications Center Development grant.

Assuming Ayer, Harvard and Shirley participate in the center, Deveau pegs annual savings per town at $50,000 before factoring in savings from employee benefits. The savings would help offset the balance of the one-time, up-front construction and equipment costs of $316,000.

An official understanding between the towns would be required on long-term governance issues. Deveau envisions a center serving other communities, too. “After speaking with the chair of the Pepperell Board (of Selectmen), they have indicated to me that they have an interest,” said Deveau, who also suggested that maybe Lunenburg and Lancaster would wish to opt in as well.

Ayer Town Administrator Shaun Suhoski agrees, “Regional dispatch centers, if properly equipped and staffed, are an area where pooling resources can be very cost effective.”

However, some town leaders are skeptical of how much a regional dispatch center would save.

“It’s something we might do,” said Harvard Selectman Chairman Ron Ricci, “It’s something clearly that we have to look at.”

© Copyright 2009 The Lowell Sun.