Four area communities are exploring whether it might be cheaper and more efficient to dispatch emergency calls from a shared public-safety communications center, an idea that some other cities and towns have already embraced.
Woburn has applied for a $109,400 grant from the State 911 Department to study the feasibility of a regional dispatch facility with Burlington, Stoneham, and Winchester. The city also applied for $50,000 to hire a project manager to assist with the study.
With the grant, Woburn and the three towns would hire a consultant to detail the steps needed to create a regional center, as well as “the cost and benefits to each community, and the obstacles,” said Mayor Scott D. Galvin.
“I think the exploration is about whether or not you can get as consistent coverage as you currently have, but at a lower cost,” said Winchester’s town manager, Richard C. Howard.
The communities are seeking the funds under a state program that supports planning and implementation of regional emergency communications centers. Six groups of communities met an April 1 deadline to apply for a grant for next fiscal year, according to Terrel Harris, spokesman for the 911 Department.
“The state encourages communities to regionalize emergency dispatch centers because . . . it allows cities and towns to cut the cost of providing those services to residents,’’ Harris said. “It also, we believe, is a more efficient way of providing the service.”
There are 16 regional 911 centers in Massachusetts, according to Harris; the list includes a joint dispatch center for Lynn and Swampscott at the Lynn police station.
Two more shared centers are planned in area communites, including the Essex County Regional Emergency Communications Center , which is scheduled to open in July on the grounds of the Essex County Correctional Facility in Middleton. The dispatch center will handle public safety calls for Amesbury, Beverly, Essex, Middleton, Topsfield, and Wenham, and also answer all wireless calls for 911 made within the county.
Revere and Winthrop are working toward opening a joint dispatch center as early as this fall at the Revere police station.
Chelsea, Everett, Medford, Melrose, and Somerville, along with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, also have applied for a state 911 grant in this spring’s round. The group is seeking $85,000 for the third phase of a regional dispatch study, said Chelsea City Manager Jay Ash.
Galvin said Woburn’s interest in a regional arrangement grew out of discussions about combining the city’s police and fire dispatch operations.
The city several months ago opened a new $1 million police dispatch facility. A consultant recently recommended the city create a combined, civilian-staffed dispatch center at the police station. Police and fire calls are currently handled separately at dispatch centers staffed by uniformed personnel.
Galvin said that in weighing the idea of a combined city facility, he and Police Chief Robert Ferullo thought it would be worth exploring a regional dispatch center, knowing that the state is supporting such efforts.
At the suggestion of Frank Pozniak, director of the State 911 Department, Galvin said, he contacted officials from neighboring communities to see whether there might be interest in seeking a study grant. When Burlington, Stoneham, and Winchester all agreed to participate, Woburn went forward with the application.
“I think it’s a proactive move by the city and we are hopefully going to get some good results,” the mayor said, noting that Woburn’s goal is that “there be savings in efficiencies for all cities and towns involved.”
Because it is new and state of the art, Woburn’s police dispatch center would be a logical site to consider for a regional operation, Galvin said, but it would be up to the study to assess locations.
Ferullo said he believes the study is worthwhile, noting the efficiencies that regionalization could offer. “Right now you have four different cities doing the exact same thing, when each and any one of the cities could have the capacity to double or triple what they currently do,” he said.
Woburn’s police chief added, though, that there is a “ton of logistics we need to look at” in evaluating how dispatch operations from four police departments and four fire departments could be combined. “The feasibility study will give us a blueprint of how it would work.”
In Burlington, Town Administrator John D. Petrin, who assumed his job last June, said his community has also been interested in exploring regionalization as one approach to unifying its own police and fire dispatch operations.
Petrin said he contacted the State 911 Department some weeks ago to ask whether there had been any past conversations in the area about regional dispatch. He and Galvin soon began discussing the idea of seeking a grant.
While regionalizing could mean savings for the communities, Petrin said, that should not be the primary focus.
“It’s about the efficiency and effectiveness of service, can we do our jobs better — that should be the first goal,” he said. “If we can do it better, great. If we can save money, even better.”
Stoneham Town Administrator David Ragucci said his town took part in a previous regional dispatch study for a different group of communities, and “we found it wasn’t going to save Stoneham any dollars — in fact, it was going to cost us dollars.
“But we are always in the mode of trying to improve our performance and save dollars,” he said of the town’s decision to explore the subject again. “I’m looking forward to the study to see how we fare in comparison to the one we had done previously.”John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.