North Shore regional 911 dispatch on agenda

Cathryn Keefe O’Hare

Danvers and 11 other North Shore communities are expected to hire a project manager soon for a regional emergency dispatch center to provide better service with more personnel and cutting edge technology.

The project manager will flesh out details for a regional 911 center serving 250,000 to 380,000 people, depending on how many communities sign on, said Danvers Police Chief Neil Ouellette in an interview.

Ouellette is a strong advocate of such a center, which he thinks would have provided the victims of the November 2006 Danversport explosion even better response than they received.

“The system failed us in the blast,” Ouellette said, despite the fact that police and fire personnel received so much praise from neighbors and town officials.

With so many incoming calls from panicked people, the system was jammed, he said. Dispatchers couldn’t make any calls and resorted to using the fax machine for outgoing calls. In addition, the room in the police station is relatively small and the dispatchers had trouble hearing police and firefighters, the chief said.

“That was a terrible situation, but it was one neighborhood,” he said, and handled commendably by the professionals on duty and those off duty who came in to help out.

But, he wonders, “What would happen if there were a hurricane or tornado impacting the whole community?”

Last year the chief urged and Town Meeting agreed to funding $3,000 to join the regional dispatch study committee.

Topsfied Fire Chief Ronald P. Giovannacci is chairman of the Regional Operating Center Advisory Committee, which includes, besides Danvers, Methuen, North Andover, Middleton, Ipswich, Hamilton, Wenham, Essex, Beverly, Swampscott and Manchester.

“It started as a grassroots effort by a group of fire and police chiefs,” Giovannacci said. “We’re hoping there’s a real buy-in from the state.”

He emphasized the cost-saving possibilities, given that each community seems to be on the verge of needing new equipment, at a cost of $180,000 to $200,000 each.

Statewide, there are 288 Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs), said Giovannacci, a.k.a. 911 centers. In other states, such as Virginia, Arizona, North Dakota, central dispatch centers are becoming the norm.