Starting Sunday, when people call 911 with medical emergencies, dispatchers in Massachusetts are required to stay on the line with them until help arrives. That could cause a logjam on the emergency lines in small towns like Norfolk, Plainville, and Wrentham, which sometimes have only one dispatcher on duty.
Officials in the towns say they’ll work around the problem temporarily by routing excess calls to nearby departments or to State Police. But in the long run, they hope to merge their dispatch services with one another — and with larger, nearby Franklin — to create an operation that won’t be overwhelmed when several emergency calls come in at once.
“It was getting to the point where the town was either going to have to hire more dispatchers, or consolidate with other communities,” said James Anderson, Wrentham’s police chief. “This has been a couple of years in the making. We’re trying to get this done. We’re hoping next time this year we’ll be up and running. I think we can do it in a year, I really do.”
The four towns have already been awarded a $1.4 million state grant to reconfigure space in Wrentham’s public safety building to house the new regional dispatch center. They are now waiting on an additional $2.8 million grant from the state that would pay for new equipment for the center.
Anderson said he expects to hear news about the second grant sometime this summer. “We’re pretty optimistic,” Anderson said. “It’s still a competitive grant, [but] the state definitely wants to see this project get done.”
‘We’re not doing it primarily to save money. We’re doing it to create more resources.’
Officials say merging their operations might save some money, but that the ultimate goal is to get police, fire, and medical personnel to the scene of calls more quickly and to prevent situations in which a single dispatcher is flooded with calls.
“Presently the dispatcher on duty could easily be overwhelmed by a major incident,” said Wrentham Town Administrator William Ketcham. “If you combine what [all four towns] are presently keeping on duty right now, we would be able to deal with pretty much anything, short of a tornado or something, that came along.”
“We’re not doing it primarily to save money,” said James Lehan, chairman of Norfolk’s Board of Selectmen. “We’re doing it to create more resources.”
“Now the dispatcher will know the location of all officers, and if there is a significant emergency and Wrentham has a police officer a mile and a half away, we’ll have that efficiency in response,” Lehan added. “We can get there faster.”
Norfolk will save between $600,000 and $800,000, Lehan said, if the town builds a new public safety building, because it won’t have to include an area for dispatch operations.
Lehan also said the merger would lead to a “tremendous” upgrade in all the communities’ 911 systems.
“The equipment for 911 is very, very expensive, and it needs updating constantly,” Lehan said.
Some other towns in the state have recently moved toward regionalizing their dispatch services. Hingham opened a regional dispatch center last year in cooperation with some of its neighbors. The towns of Acton, Boxborough, Concord, Lincoln, Maynard, Sudbury, Wayland, and Weston have also studied the prospect of combining their services.
Norfolk, Plainville, and Wrentham are natural partners in that students from the three towns attend the regional King Philip middle and high schools. Officials said they want to explore further opportunities to regionalize services.
Lehan mentioned the possibility of sharing planning or human resources staff, and Plainville Town Administrator Joseph Fernandes said the towns might look into sharing court officers or encouraging detectives from the different towns to work together.
“We’ve been trying to find something to regionalize forever,” Lehan said. “It’s really rewarding to finally crack this barrier.”