The process was not without hitches, but the regional public safety dispatch center run by the Essex County Sheriff's Department went online last month.
Essex and Wenham became the first of six charter members to begin using the Essex County Regional Emergency Communications Center for police, fire, and ambulance services.
Topsfield and Middleton will come online in late summer and Beverly and Amesbury during the fall.
Proponents say that regional dispatch will provide better service for less cost to residents.
Fire Chief Ron DiGiovanni of Topsfield, an early champion of the concept (along with now-retired Topsfield police chief Dan O’Shea), said that regional dispatch has been effective in other states, including New Hampshire.
The center’s high-technology system, installed and implemented by Spillman Technologies Inc. of Utah, allows dispatchers to take calls, locate both addresses and nearby responders, contact responders by radio, and track their location through the call, said Deputy Sheriff Maurice Pratt, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Department.
DiGiovanni said the regional dispatch center will be a self-sustained operation, run with state and local money. The annual cost per resident for each community is $16.26.
Beginning in September, the center will become the public safety answering point for cellphone calls to 911 made from all of Essex County and about half of Middlesex County. State Police currently respond to those calls.
Essex Police Chief Pete Silva said that when the department last estimated the annual cost of its dispatch operation, in 2010, the cost was $80.14 per resident. There are 11 employees at the center, which is located in Middleton, including six dispatchers. The $11 million headquarters was built with state grants.
Although 911 calls from Essex came through to the dispatch center with no problem all week, there were second-day problems with calls made to local police and fire numbers (mostly for the business lines) not getting through to the dispatch center. That problem was rectified shortly after it was identified, Pratt said.
“You’re going to have bumps in the road,” said Silva, who added that there were no public safety issues that he knew of resulting from communication problems. “For the most part, things went well.”
He and DiGiovanni both said that public safety officials had to continue reminding the public that the best number to dial for emergencies is 911.
Wenham also went online on June 28, and there were no initial problems, said both Pratt and Wenham Town Administrator Mark Andrews.
Although Wenham was originally scheduled to start June 26, that was a “soft target date,” Pratt said. It was pushed back a couple of days to be sure it was handled smoothly.
‘We’re still progressing as planned,” he said at midweek. “We continue to test the system and are very happy with our progress.
“ We want to be sure when they’re both online, it goes as planned,” DiGiovanni said. “And because of logistics and technology and, most of all, public safety, we’re taking our time. That’s why we’re bringing [municipalities] on one at a time We anticipate that there are going to be issues.”
Originally, 13 communities expressed an interest in the center. Seven have opted not to sign on at this time.
“We’ll encourage more communities to join, but only if it is right for them,” DiGiovanni said. “I believe it will grow in time.”