Dracut, Tewksbury prepare for move to regional dispatch center

Michael Roberts, project superintendent with Nelco Worldwide, the general contractor, give a tour of the new Northern Middlesex Regional Emergency Communications Center, under construction next to Tewksbury DPW. It will handle 911 dispatch for Tewksbury and Dracut, with room for a third town to join. (SUN/Julia Malakie)
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TEWKSBURY — With the expected opening of a new regional dispatch center a few months away, local emergency service departments are preparing for the transition.

Dispatch services for fire and police departments in Tewksbury and Dracut will soon be housed at the Northern Middlesex Regional Emergency Communications Center, which is slated to open on Whipple Road in April. Dracut signed on to join the regional center in 2015, becoming the first community other than Tewksbury to do so after a few others, including Lowell and Chelmsford, opted out of the collaboration.

According to Tewksbury Town Manager Richard Montuori, construction of the 6,500-square-foot, single-story building is expected to be completed in January, with equipment to be installed in the following months. Once open, the center will be staffed by an executive director, four supervisors and 12.5 dispatchers, with some working full time and some part time, he said.

  • The new Northern Middlesex Regional Emergency Communications Center, under construction next to Tewksbury DPW. It will handle 911 dispatch for Tewksbury and Dracut, with room for a third town to join. (SUN/Julia Malakie)

  • One of the locker rooms (men’s and women’s are equivalent) at the new Northern Middlesex Regional Emergency Communications Center, under construction next to Tewksbury DPW. It will handle 911 dispatch for Tewksbury and Dracut, with room for a third town to join. (SUN/Julia Malakie)

  • Brandon Snow of Keene, N.H., left, and Scott Steiger of Manchester, N.H., both carpenters with Nelco Worldwide, work in the kitchen of the new Northern Middlesex Regional Emergency Communications Center, under construction next to Tewksbury DPW. It will handle 911 dispatch for Tewksbury and Dracut, with room for a third town to join. (SUN/Julia Malakie)

  • Michael Roberts, project superintendent with Nelco Worldwide, the general contractor, give a tour of the new Northern Middlesex Regional Emergency Communications Center, under construction next to Tewksbury DPW. It will handle 911 dispatch for Tewksbury and Dracut, with room for a third town to join. This is the IT room. (SUN/Julia Malakie)

  • Michael Roberts, project superintendent with Nelco Worldwide, the general contractor, give a tour of the new Northern Middlesex Regional Emergency Communications Center, under construction next to Tewksbury DPW. It will handle 911 dispatch for Tewksbury and Dracut, with room for a third town to join. This will be the dispatch room. There will be six stations initially, and eventually nine. (SUN/Julia Malakie)

  • Michael Roberts, project superintendent with Nelco Worldwide, the general contractor, give a tour of the new Northern Middlesex Regional Emergency Communications Center, under construction next to Tewksbury DPW. It will handle 911 dispatch for Tewksbury and Dracut, with room for a third town to join. This is the reception area, with bulletproof glass. (SUN/Julia Malakie)

  • Michael Roberts, project superintendent with Nelco Worldwide, the general contractor, give a tour of the new Northern Middlesex Regional Emergency Communications Center, under construction next to Tewksbury DPW. It will handle 911 dispatch for Tewksbury and Dracut, with room for a third town to join. This will be the training room. (SUN/Julia Malakie)

  • Michael Roberts, project superintendent with Nelco Worldwide, the general contractor, give a tour of the new Northern Middlesex Regional Emergency Communications Center, under construction next to Tewksbury DPW. It will handle 911 dispatch for Tewksbury and Dracut, with room for a third town to join. (SUN/Julia Malakie)

  • Antenna tower at the new Northern Middlesex Regional Emergency Communications Center, under construction next to Tewksbury DPW. It will handle 911 dispatch for Tewksbury and Dracut, with room for a third town to join. The horizontal frames will support dish antennae. (SUN/Julia Malakie)

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All of the dispatchers currently employed in Tewksbury are expected to move to the new center, Montuori said, and any Dracut dispatchers interested in working at the regional center will also be given the option to do so. The hiring process for additional dispatchers will begin in January, and the Tewksbury Police Department also plans to add a few civilian positions to ensure that the station’s entry is staffed 24 hours, he said.

“We already have people there during the day, but (we need) to cover from 4 o’clock until the next morning when someone comes in Monday through Friday,” Montuori said.

The Dracut Police Department currently staffs three full-time dispatchers and four part-time, per-diem dispatchers, according to Chief Peter Bartlett, who said those positions are all slated to be eliminated with the opening of the new center.

But with the loss of the department’s in-house dispatchers, he said the town is working to determine whether it can continue to offer some of the other around-the-clock services those employees have typically provided, such as being the first point of contact for visitors, answering the station’s business line and helping residents with paperwork for firearms licenses and towed vehicles.

“It’s my philosophy that I want to be able to provide some good quality customer service to the folks that come to the building and want to speak to an officer or want help with something, that we have a live person here that is actually able to assist with that process,” Bartlett said.

Interim Town Manager Ann Vandal said Dracut hopes to maintain one or two civilian positions for front entry coverage at the Police Department, but she’s still working to determine what will be possible in the budget. Participating in the regional dispatch center will cost the town roughly $400,000 to $450,000 per year, she said, but Dracut expects to see significant savings when it comes to the equipment dispatchers use.

“Equipment replacement is estimated to have been approximately $2 million for the town. But because of the regional dispatch, we were able to absorb some of that cost through this program,” Vandal said. “So that’s one of the main reasons for us making this change, because either way we would have had to replace all of our equipment.”

Outside of determining personnel needs, the participating departments also need to train officers in the public safety software that will be used at the new center to ensure all communications are linked through the same platform, Montuori said. Dracut is currently undergoing a complete conversion to the new system, according to Bartlett, and in the months leading up to the center’s opening in April, staff will attend several multi-day sessions to familiarize themselves with the software.

“So the officers are going to be learning an entirely new report taking software system, property management, property entry, evidence management, accident forms — all of these things that are in this new system,” Bartlett said.

The $4.35 million project, which is being funded by the state, will provide new state-of-the-art equipment and more career growth opportunities for dispatchers, Montuori said, as well as the ability to focus solely on dispatching and have more support on hand for larger emergencies.

His hope is that as the center gets up and running and begins to see some success, other area communities may find renewed interest in joining the regional collaboration.

“We provide a tremendous service now, both communities, when it comes to safety dispatching. And this I think is going to be even better, and we look forward to doing it,” Montuori said. “We’ll be a model operation for the commonwealth.”