Editorial: Look to Athol for lessons of 911 regionalization

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Greenfield is wise in taking steps to work with a consultant to explore whether all public safety communications in Franklin County could be performed by one regional 911 dispatch center.

The town applied for and received a grant of $41,421 that will pay for a consultant to provide a roadmap toward this end.

The need, according to Greenfield Police Chief Robert Haigh Jr., seems clear: In an emergency, there can be delays in getting information out to departments across the county because of the fractured nature of the current system. As it stands now, all towns in Franklin County except for Greenfield and Montague receive dispatching services from Shelburne Control, which is funded through both the state 911 agency and state police budgets and hosted by the state police in its barracks on the Mohawk Trail. Greenfield and Montague operate their own dispatch centers.

It is the state government’s stated goal to reduce 911 locations through regionalization, hence its funding of this study.

The state holds both a carrot and a stick: It will pay for such improvements as new equipment, enhanced radio communications and additional dispatchers, but only for regional 911 districts, not for stand-alone centers such as those operated by Greenfield and Montague. In those cases, local taxpayers foot the bill for upgrades.

But Franklin County has only to look east for an object lesson in the perils of 911 regionalization without thorough and transparent study.

In March 2015, Athol selectmen and Gardner entered into an agreement to regionalize their dispatch services. Fast forward a year and a half and sparks started flying as Athol’s emergency services unions submitted letters objecting to the plan and the process to achieve it. They cited a lack of transparency, feeling out of the loop, and the disruption of “decades of established practice.”

By November, citizen petitions had brought 911 regionalization to a non-binding, special town meeting vote, the result of which led selectmen to withdraw from the 911 regionalization agreement with Gardner. The reverberations have included a demand by the state to repay $739,000 in state money that had been given Athol for the project. Compromises are being worked out to preserve both Gardner’s and Athol’s future roles in handling 911 calls for Athol.

But what a wasteful collision of interests.

When it comes to public safety, people want their dispatchers to have local knowledge of roads, industry and schools. That kind of institutional knowledge is built up over years by emergency service volunteers and the people who represent them in unions and local government.

In the Greenfield case, Haigh has argued that as good as the Shelburne Control, Montague and Greenfield dispatch services are, Franklin County dispatching might be made better still if fully regionalized, with all the dispatchers in one room.

As the regionalization study goes forward, keeping all emergency responders, and the community at large that they serve, in the loop from the beginning of any 911 regionalization effort, will smooth out the road ahead for Greenfield and Montague.