SOUTHWICK – Southwick Fire Chief Russ Anderson and Police Chief Kevin Bishop are gathering information on the town’s dispatch services to present to the Southwick Select Board.
Select Board Chair Douglas Moglin said the presentation will be in the coming weeks during a public meeting.
Last week, WestComm Regional Dispatch Center Director Erin Hastings presented the board with a pitch to join the center. Located in Chicopee, the center includes Chicopee, East Longmeadow, Longmeadow and Monson. In addition to redundancy of personnel and services, Hastings said Southwick would benefit from state-of-the-art equipment, state grants to the center and cost savings over time. The Jan. 11 presentation is available on the Southwick YouTube channel.
Select Board members and both town chiefs have said that while the cost savings are attractive, it’s more about service, safety and what is best overall for the community.
“Our goal is to improve service to the public and increase safety for our first responders,” said Anderson.
Whether or not those goals can be met in-house or by regionalizing is still up in the air.
Financially, it would cost the town approximately $100,000 per year in the long-term to join WestComm. The current dispatch budget for personnel and benefits is $270,000, according to the police budget. The board and chiefs agree that the town’s radio system and console need to be replaced, which is estimated at just over $1 million, and the dispatch center, located at the police station, needs an update. There are also concerns with a lack of redundancy with the current “single-seat” dispatch, which means that there is one dispatcher per shift. To make it a double-seat dispatch, the budget would double and there is not a consistent daily need for two dispatchers, however there are often times when a second seat is needed.
After last week’s WestComm presentation, Moglin received “a few emails” and “a couple of phone calls” from residents concerned about losing dispatch services in town and what would happen to the current staff, which Moglin said is “phenomenal.” Southwick has four full time dispatchers and three part time. Three of the dispatchers are able retire in the next few years.
Hastings said if Southwick joined it would create five full time positions that current dispatchers could apply for. They would lose their current seniority, however two years is the most seniority among WestComm staff.
Lead Dispatcher Robert Eak said last week he, too, had questions and concerns but was confident that the decision-makers would do what was best for the community, whether it is to keep and expand the current dispatch unit or regionalize.
“I trust that the select board and whomever else is making this decision will do what is best,” Eak said.
One important factor in the decision and need for more than a single-seat is the emergency medical dispatch (EMD) mandate. When dispatching a medical call, dispatchers – which WestComm calls telecommunicators – have a large list of questions they must ask. There are additional requirements created by the pandemic. So, if there is a single dispatcher on a medical call and a second medical call comes in, or there is an accident or other emergency, one person is trying to field all those calls while meeting EMD requirements. A second dispatcher – or more if the town regionalizes – would alleviate that situation.
“The EMD part of this has put a tremendous burden on single-seat dispatch,” Anderson said.
Some residents expressed concerns on social media that the town dispatchers know the town and its landmarks, particularly older landmarks that have changed over the years. However, Moglin said that most calls are made by cell phones which have sophisticated GPS systems so that would not be a concern. Hastings also stated that the current dispatch data – including all notes on landmarks and residents – would transfer if they town joined the center.
This is not the first time regionalizing dispatch has been studied. Longtime Selectman Russell Fox said it has been considered more than once over the last decade but was not advantageous in the past.
Moglin said this time could be different because the state is moving toward regional centers and is funneling grants to regional dispatch services. In the past, it was financially a wash and service would not improve.
“We’re at a crossroads,” Moglin said. “Regional dispatch is something we have to evaluate and if and when Southwick joins . . . there is a lot to discuss.”
Moglin said if regionalizing is best, it may or may not be with WestComm, although he noted that Southwick would have an equal seat on its board of directors along with all center members. Some regional groups do not have equal say for its members, but base it on what the community contributes.
Anderson noted that regionalizing with Westfield and Agawam would be ideal, however both cities have “regionalized from within” by combining their own police and fire dispatch services into one in-city center.
Anderson and Bishop are reaching out to WestComm as well as its members for answers to a long list of questions before they meet with the board.