Ayer, Shirley Consider Merger of Dispatch Centers
By Anne O’Connor
October was a big month for dispatch in the abutting towns of Ayer and Shirley.
Both installed state-provided Enhanced 911 equipment for their dispatch centers.
The two Boards of Selectmen met to talk about combining those same centers.
The state requires each dispatch center to have the new equipment before the end of the month, said Shirley Police Chief Sam Santiago.
The equipment means immediate improvements to public safety and the ability to add other features in the future, said Paul Topolski, Shirley’s dispatch supervisor.
After 911 cellphone calls come in from the state police, where they are first answered, the dispatcher can track the phones location on a computer screen.
The GPS service varies in accuracy depending on different factors, he said. The first thing a dispatcher will ask is for the location, but that can take up to half a minute to answer. In the meantime, dispatch can send a cruiser to the general area.
Topolski handles 911 calls from the police station. The fire department does its own dispatch.
There are not enough people to staff the fire dispatch, Fire Chief Dennis Levesque said during an Oct. 11 meeting of the Ayer and Pepperell selectmen. If no one is on duty when a call comes in, the call rolls over to Ayer.
Ayer dispatch relays the information from the call to someone at the Ayer police or fire station, Gills said after the meeting. If it is an ambulance call, Ayer sends its Advanced Life Support unit. It can be called back by radio if Shirley responds first and can handle the call.
“We can’t afford to keep going the way we’re going,” Levesque said at the meeting. The equipment needs to be upgraded.
The regional dispatch located in Devens refused to take the Ayer rollover calls, he said.
“The issue at hand is, can we sustain our dispatch?” said Santiago during the meeting.
“We’re asking for your help,” he said. “Ayer would provide excellent services to the citizens of Shirley.”
“The first step is to agree conceptually,” said Ayer Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand. “We really want to work as a partnership.”
Merging the dispatch is do-able, said Ayer police Lt. Brian Gill. Ayer would need to hire two new dispatchers and all would need to become familiar with the other town.
“There’s a lot of human knowledge,” he said.
Ayer is in the process of upgrading its radio system, Gill said in a follow-up conversation. The antenna can communicate with Shirley’s system.
If the towns had an intermunicipal agreement, the support given to Ayer would rise from the current $23,000 per year to $175,000, said Frank Pozniak, the executive director of the state 911 Department.
The new center would be eligible to compete for other grants in coming years.
“Public safety is what we do,” Pozniak said. “The situation right now is not a good thing.”
“Our chiefs have said that as well,” said Holly Haase, chairwoman of the Shirley Board of Selectmen.
All of the selectmen voted in favor of a motion that would, as Ayer Selectman Jannice Livingston put it, “let our people talk to theirs.”
The boards plan to meet again. The meeting has not been posted.
Follow Anne O’Connor on Twitter @a1oconnor.