Letter: Fire and Police Chief on Regionalizing Public Safety Dispatch

[Ed note: My Southborough accepts signed letters to the editor submitted by Southborough residents. Letters may be emailed to mysouthborough@gmail.com. 

This letter is from Southborough Police Chief Ryan Newell and Southborough Fire Chief Steven Achilles.]

To the Editor:

This letter summarizes the timeline of the Regional Emergency Communication Center (“RECC”) which was initiated by the Fire and Police Chiefs in consultation with the Select Board as outlined below. It is important to note that at each step, the Fire and Police Chiefs were in agreement on advancing to the next stage of research and presented that recommendation to the Select Board.

On June 29, 2021, a 911 regional conference was hosted by the Office of Public Safety and Security and the State 911 Department in Westborough.

The Lt. Governor, Secretary of Public Safety and Security, State Executive Director of 911, members of State 911 Department, State legislators and public safety officials discussed the future of 911 Emergency Response in MA, specifically regionalization.

On August 17, 2021, Police Chief Paulhus and Fire Chief Achilles provided an update on public safety communications to the Select Board. Both emphasized strengthening the Emergency Communications Center (ECC), specifically improving operations and administration. This would require an assessment of best practices and standards for each agency, as well as future staffing, capabilities, capital expenses and overall operations. Both sought and received support from the Board to explore regionalization of dispatch.

In September 2021, the City of Marlborough and the Towns of Grafton, Hopkinton, Hudson, Northborough, Southborough, and Westborough requested the State 911 Department to conduct a Study of the Feasibility of establishing a RECC for all of the communities. During the next eleven months, departments were evaluated with respective department heads being interviewed to gather information about the current status and future communication needs of each departments.

In November 2021, Chief Paulhus went to the Select Board to request a fifth full-time dispatcher due to the challenges to staff the operations twenty-four hours a day – seven days a week. After much discussion, a fifth dispatch position was approved at the Annual Town Meeting for a start date of July 1, 2022. Since the addition of this fifth dispatcher, Southborough has struggled to maintain a full-time roster of five, despite having the available funding.

In early August 2022, a feasibility study was completed and included the recommendation that the seven communities are suited quite well to establish a RECC or join a state 911 operated RECC.

On August 17, 2022, all seven communities’ representatives met to review and discuss each community’s position on the two recommendations presented in the study:

  1. Regionalize Into State 911 Department Wireless / RECC located within region.
  2. Regionalize into a site within region.

After discussion and deliberation, it was evident that Southborough, Hopkinton, Westborough, and Grafton were interested in moving forward with a RECC within either Westborough or Hopkinton. The remaining three communities could not formally commit or were hesitant.

Shortly after the August 17, 2022 meeting, both the initial study and addendum (represented the four towns) were shared with the Select Board.

Chief Achilles and Acting Chief Newell met with Select Board on September 20, 2022, and provided overview and support for RECC to include the application of appropriate grants in collaboration with the other three communities.

On November 16, 2022, the Select Board held an Informational Session on Regional Dispatch. Fire Chief Achilles presented the following:

  1. Have Joseph Crean, State 911 Director of Special Projects, review state’s general philosophy the future of RECCs and the grant programs available.
  2. Discuss options of public business and emergency access at the PSB.
  3. Answer any specific questions from members of the Select Board or the public.
  4. Request the Select Board to establish a formal position on moving forward.
  5. Seek support to enter an Inter Municipal Agreement with the 3 towns to move forward with grant applications that open in January 2023.

Fire Chief Achilles, along with Acting Police Chief Newell, provided the following core philosophies driving the initiative to improve the Town’s Emergency Communications Center. This could be accomplished through appropriately staffing and funding current operations or by collaborating with other towns through a RECC:

  • Ensure timely and accurate assistance to public, including pre-arrival medical instruction, without interruption, during 911 calls.
  • Provide appropriate, predictable, and sustainable staffing to national (NFPA) standards.
  • Improve call processing and unit notification times to best practices and national (NFPA) standards.
  • Provide dedicated emergency communications to responding personnel, ensuring critical information is transmitted and received.
  • Reduce errors and omissions that occur during multiple or critical incidents.
  • Provide resiliency and reserve capacity for complex and simultaneous incidents.
  • Reduce delays in receiving additional resources.
  • Maintain a quality assurance program to improve operations.
  • Provide dedicated, credentialled, and experienced oversight.

Additional reference information was provided:

  • Number of Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) and Regional Centers in MA:
    • 351 Towns / Cities
    • Currently there are 31 Regional PSAPS or RECCs operating in the
    • Commonwealth, with two that are currently in development and slated to begin operations in 2024/2025. There are 240 PSAPs operating in the Commonwealth, with two slated to join an existing RECC in 2023.
  • Emergency Medical Dispatch (EMD) including 560 CMR
    • Requires Certified EM Dispatchers – obtain and maintain, including CPR
    • Required Emergency Medical Director
    • Quality assurance case review process
  • National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standards – 1221:Standard on Emergency Communications
    • Minimum Staffing:2
    • Management: 1 Supervisor (within PSAP)
    • Operations: Call Answering: 15-20 seconds, Alarm processing of high priority: 60 sec.
    • Monthly evaluation and review
  • Current staffing and stability (Chief Newell)
  • Service Level Benefits
  • Capital and re-current operational cost benefits

At the conclusion of the meeting, the Select Board decided to continue to have conversations around regionalization along with Grafton, Hopkinton, and Westborough.

The Town Managers/Administrators and Select Board Chairs from all 4 towns met on December 6, 2022, to discuss pursuing regionalization. Grafton, Westborough, and Southborough remained interested while Hopkinton was still exploring the opportunity. Collectively, the group agreed that tan Intermunicipal Agreement (IMA) was the best route to go versus the expression of interest given the advantage in the grant process. There was discussion that the current dispatch staffing is insufficient, something needs to be done, and there needs to be financial considerations included. The

Southborough Select Board voted to continue to work with the other towns on developing an IMA and assigned Chelsea Malinowski to represent Southborough. The board also discussed the need to come up with options to not have a “dark station”.

On January 17, 2023, a First Draft of the IMA was presented to the Southborough Select Board and feedback solicited. The Board requested that Town Council review the document from a legal perspective. There was discussion around how funds would be approved, communication between the Executive Director and Select Board/Town, grant timing, etc.

Throughout the remainder of January, the four (4) towns continued to work through updates after Southborough’s Town Council provided feedback based on state statute and other successful RECC’s. Select Board Member Chelsea Malinowski stated she would provide an updated version of the IMA and a tracked changes version to the board for further review. Town Council was scheduled to attend the board’s meeting on February 7 to answer questions.

Town Counsel attended the Select Board meeting on February 7, 2023. The main changes to the IMA were: reducing the time to terminate participation in the RECC from five years to nine months (final document is six months), allowing Southborough to have the Select Board control representation on the Board of Directors, added in operation procedures sections, and updated financial obligations to align with state statute.

In mid-February the Select Board made minor changes to the IMA and with a four to one vote, approved it. They acknowledged there were still questions that needed to be answered: lease agreement, inclusion of indemnification clause, dark station options, and a request to get more information on the proposed site.

On March 2, 2023, a meeting was held with EPA, DEP, and the LSP along with representatives from each town. The EPA representative confirmed that the five-year reports will continue in perpetuity including testing of the site. The contaminant is heavier than ground water and is 100-130 feet below the ground. The cleanup that has been done is for human use and not just ecological purposes.

At the March 7, 2023 Select Board meeting, given questions about the authority of town meeting on this matter moving forward, members discussed the costs associated with continuing dispatch in-house, doubling current staffing, and moving forward with a RECC.

As of this date, both Chiefs continue to strongly support the transition to a Regional Emergency Communications Center. The foundation of this support is predicated on strengthening the delivery of public safety services, while at the same time providing for the safety of our police officers and firefighters. Emergency communications is essential to the operations of both departments. It is our belief that partnering with other communities into a single Regional Emergency Communications Center will ensure predictable and stable services to our community and the region for the foreseeable future.

Ryan Newell, Police Chief
Steven Achilles, Fire Chief

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Mike Pojani
2 months ago

Again here we go again trying to fix something that is not broken at enormous costs! How can you even begin to compare the costs to add another or even two or three personnel to the present operation to the unknown costs to pursue this ridiculous idea of regional dispatch? That proposed site on Otis Street is and always has been a highly contaminated site. The real costs to fix that site is unknown. Also if we were to go that route we as taxpayers would be required to throw any money needed for the facility now and for the future! We as taxpayers should have final say on where our tax dollars are spent and keep our tax dollar spending in our great town! We built a state of the art new facility and now you want to fix something not broke. Just spend the dollars to supply any upgrades in house!

Admin
Beth Melo
2 months ago
Reply to  Mike Pojani

The Select Board and Town Counsel have stated, that a lease agreement would need to exempt Southborough from liabilities of any unforseen environmental issues at the site. That lease agreement hasn’t been seen yet. But the Board has stressed they need to see it before the deadline for withdrawing from the agreement without any penalties.

David Parry
2 months ago
Reply to  Beth Melo

The contaminatrd site will likely be the LEAST of our future problems, if our Select Board continue on their reckless way with regionalization of dispatch.

They have fallen / been enticed by the financial subsidies /carrots offered by the State, to encourage regionalization. Those subsidies will soon run out and THEN WE WILL BE STUCK FOREVER in a regional service we may not like, for many reasons … one of which is LACK OF TOWN MEETING CONTROL OVER THE BUDGET.

Southborough will NOT be permitted, by law, to return to our former individual status.

Hopkinfon wisely saw through the fog and said NO.

Southborough Town Meeting can, and should, send a clear message to our inattentive Select Board, who (unfortunately) are authorized to make this decision … TOWN MEETING WANTS TO CONTINUE TO BE INVOLVED WITH BUDGETS — AND SO WE WANT OUT OF THIS REGIONALIZATION PROJECT.

Kelly Roney
2 months ago

Below is how I’m thinking about this question. Please poke holes in this!

Cons:

  1. Town Meeting loses control of appropriations for dispatch.
  2. Thought: TM still appropriates the entire public safety budget, and the Select Board allocates it, which is where we are now.
  3. Thought: That doesn’t mean we have full control of the costs.
  4. Thought: This is not like the regional school district, since that agreement has a democratic way to resolve disputes about the budget. However, since Southborough is the smaller town in the region, our power to outvote Northborough in a regional “town” meeting is probably low. (Thank goodness we’ve never needed one.)
  5. The Public Safety Building is unstaffed at some times.
  6. Thought: The plan for regional dispatch should include a lighted kiosk at the Taj that would allow quick contact with a dispatcher.
  7. Thought: Firefighters will presumably be inside even when the building is dark, but they shouldn’t be stretched into being dispatchers. Police on patrol should be available within minutes, I would think, but they also shouldn’t be dragged into being dispatchers.
  8. We can’t go back if we’re not happy.
  9. Thought: But we can seek another RECC to join. That doesn’t help if we’re dissatisfied with RECCs in general.
  10. Perceived risk of greater costs.
  11. Thought: The Select Board’s desire to have an exemption from liability from the site’s hazmat drawbacks is one approach.
  12. Thought: Westborough has greater per capita 911 calls than either Southborough or Grafton. How do we avoid subsidizing that?

Pros:

  1. Greater overall staffing, which provides better resiliency when there are multiple calls at the same time.
  2. Thought: We have the choice of hiring more dispatchers in order to guarantee at least two are always on or joining a RECC. A RECC would give dispatch more resiliency if there’s a spike in calls.
  3. Thought: No system can provide enough resiliency if there’s a region-wide disaster such as a hurricane.
  4. Promised lower costs.
  5. Thought: Costs should be lower due to economies of scale. Making up numbers as an example: If Southborough and Grafton normally staff one dispatcher each and Westborough normally staffs two, the RECC would have more backup, even with 3, and the cost would be less, since we should be paying for only 3/4s of a fulltime equivalent per shift, instead of a whole dispatcher if we stay local.
  6. Thought: The average call volume for each individual dispatcher should go up. Would this lead to higher salaries?

Questions:

  1. How many hours per week is the Public Safety building “dark” and “unstaffed”?
  2. Have communications been tested throughout the proposed region? Do they work reliably?
  3. How is mutual aid affected?
  4. Thought: A RECC that covered most or all of our mutual aid towns would be better.

What am I missing?

Admin
Beth Melo
2 months ago
Reply to  Kelly Roney

“Westborough has greater per capita 911 calls than either Southborough or Grafton. How do we avoid subsidizing that?”.

Under the agreement, the fees annual fees are split bye each town. 50% of the cost is allotted based on the number of 911 calls received per town. The other 50% is based each town’s population. (One of the Select Board members noted that the population would impact the perceived potential for future 911 calls.)

John Butler
2 months ago

There are two different questions that are before this Town Meeting for a recommendation to the Select Board. First, is this particular plan for Regional Dispatch a good plan? Second is Regional Dispatch, however implemented, a good idea? Two different warrants address those two questions. With regard to the first question I can say, emphatically, that this particular plan, now reduced to Westborough and Grafton, is a bad plan and we certainly should walk away from it. With regard to any possible Regional Dispatch, I don’t have conclusions yet. I will focus here only on the debilitating problems with the current plan.

First, it is nothing less than absurd for Southborough to choose to locate the facility on a former Superfund site in Westborough that has been contaminated with creosote. There is a ton of empty office space all along Rt 9 in all the towns. Why in the world should Southborough accept any additional risk to such a startup operation by choosing such a location? Neither science nor indemnification can ever eliminate the extra risks posed by placing 24×7 employees on a site that the EPA permanently prohibits for residential use. Westborough has a problem with what to do with that land. That is not our problem, and we shouldn’t make that our problem. If recent history tells us anything about science and health, it is that science does not control people’s views and fears about their own health. The site has strict limitations about what you can do and where you can go on it. Every employee will know they are working on a site with low level residual contamination. All that is needed is one case of an early cancer or a lung ailment among the employees and no amount of saying “The residual creosote here did not cause your cancer/asthma/lung disease.” will calm the anxiety of the union employees who are staffing the site 24×7. I, personally, fully accept the truth of that science, but for management and employees the science won’t allay fears. Think about the recent history of vaccine in this country. Science doesn’t control health beliefs, and health fear is a management problem that won’t go away once it starts. Why add such a risk when it is totally unnecessary? Again, this is not our problem. Don’t make it our problem. Secondly, the indemnification, which might protect us from claims by employees that they have been harmed by the dangers of the site, has been totally botched and doesn’t solve the problem anyway. Ask yourself to start, “why are going onto a site for which indemnification or protection against claims of health damages, is even a big issue before we start?” Why are we, Southborough, not insisting on a normal site, one that would be used by any private employer, in which we don’t really need to think about indemnification or health risk at this point? In any case the indemnification of Southborough cannot be negotiated into the lease between Westborough and the region because our indemnification protection cannot be turned over to a party, the new Regional Board, in which the indemnifier has a say in the adequacy of the indemnification for Southborough. Since this contract has specified the site, the adequacy of our indemnification must be in our hands alone to decide, before we put our name on the agreement. That didn’t happen. The lease cannot accomplish that. But, overall, the site choice is just crazy for Southborough. We need a clean site, one which doesn’t begin with concerns about indemnification or the power of science to compel belief on matters of health. Why is that so hard to understand?
The second big problem with this deal is the taxation authority that it strips away from Town Meeting and turns over to complete control of the Town Managers of Westborough and Grafton. A three person board, on which Southborough has representation, controls the budget and our taxes for this Regional operation. So, two votes of the other two Town Managers is sufficient to compel us to pay. Incredibly, on top of that, it has no caps on spending or debt. We have nearly seventy years of history successfully funding two school regions in which Town Meeting controls taxation and spending. There is no historically justified reason to depart from all past practice. The US Joint Chiefs of Staff cannot compel taxation for the military budget. I fail to see why the TMs of Westborough and Grafton need this power. The outcome of placing taxation control into the hands employees is, inevitably, profligate waste. They get whatever they want. That is why we haven’t done it in 300 years of self-government here and shouldn’t start now. If we want to create a region, we can use the general district creation capabilities that are used to create sewer and water districts all over the State or we can put limits on the powers of taxation as the Berkshire Dispatch District has done. We can never, ever, prudently turn over taxation authority to employees of other Towns, as this current agreement does.
Lastly, if you believe that Regional Dispatch is urgently needed, then join a successful region and skip the startup risks and the unknown costs. Most of our mutual aid partners are not in this proposed new region, (They remain independent.), and in any case, that is not an important consideration for a dispatch region. Any good dispatch region can handle mutual aid with unaffiliated partners, as this one would need to do.
It is vitally important that, if enter a dispatch region, we do it right and not make identifiable errors before it is even started. It is time to step back, recognize the mistakes in this one, and, possibly, consider how to approach the problem without having two strikes against us before we get to bat.
Following a review of the above factors, Advisory Committee voted unanimously to support Article 37, submitted to the upcoming Town Meeting by Ms. Phaneuf, which calls upon the Select Board to withdraw before the June 1 drop dead date.

John Kendall
2 months ago
Reply to  John Butler

Thank you John!

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