HANSON — Questions still remain in the minds of Selectmen and Police Chief Michael Miksch, but the Board of Selectmen is aiming to make a decision by the end of September on whether Hanson will join the member communities of the Regional Old Colony Communications Center (ROCCC) in Duxbury.
The center’s Lead Dispatcher Michael Mahoney, a Hanson native, and Duxbury Fire Department Capt. Rob Reardon briefed Hanson Selectmen on the background, operations and benefits of the center on Tuesday, July 24.
“Over the past six to eight months we’ve been having an ongoing discussion about possibly switching from the [dispatch program] we have now, as far as 911 goes,” Selectmen Chairman Kenny Mitchell said. “For me, saving money would not be the reason why I would go down this avenue — it would be a better product, from what I saw. … It would be nice to save money but that wouldn’t be my number one goal.”
In that six to eight months, Mahoney said ROCCC has made some changes and improvements to the facility’s operations.
Should Hanson opt to join, the time frame for implementation would depend on the time it takes to ensure departments are ready to go with the proper technology equipment — radios, repeaters, hammer systems.
Plympton and Rochester needed upgrades to phone systems and Rochester needed an alarm and camera system as their station was going dark with no overnight desk staff.
Among the questions selectmen have heard from residents are: how an out-of-town dispatcher can know local geographical references; what will become of current local dispatchers and overnight staff of the police station, which is located on a busy travel route and sees more overnight walk-ins than many other area stations.
Selectman Matt Dyer also wanted to hear some of the pitfalls to regional dispatch.
Mahoney said that, among his concerns was that the town would have to decide about overnight staffing of the Hanson Police station.
“That’s come up in every single town, whether they’re going to have a dark station or not,” he said. Rochester made the decision to go dark based on the low number of walk-ins to their station at night.
Miksch has said that is not the situation in Hanson.
“My issue becomes what’s the positives and negatives for Hanson,” Miksch said, noting that all the towns that have joined ROCCC so far are happy with it. “On average 218 people [per month] walk into the station and not everybody’s coming in for a pistol permit. I’m just not comfortable letting the place go dark. … You know as well as I do that someone walking in that station between midnight and 8 a.m. isn’t asking for directions. Usually, there’s a problem.”
Roots of ROCCC
“I was lucky enough to be the one who started this — to build the ROCCC,” Reardon said. “I saw where it came from and where it’s going.”
Duxbury was similar to Hanson when the project was started with one dispatcher also working the desk, he noted.
“It can get overwhelming,” Reardon said. “What we’re doing is different than the towns that have one dispatcher, not that they’re doing a bad job, but they don’t have the resources that we have.”
Foot traffic that can be distracting for a dispatcher working a call in a police station, is not a problem at ROCCC.
Established in 2013 as the Duxbury Regional Communications Center, it now also serves Plympton, Rochester and Halifax with all emergency 911 calls and business telephone traffic; calls for police, fire and EMS service; animal control calls as well as those for DPW and other municipal services are routed through the ROCCC.
“ROCCC was the first regional 911 center to deploy next-generation 911 [service],” Mahoney said, explaining that a fiber-optic network-based system with mapping software was installed two years ago. “It overlays house numbers and addresses right on the satellite picture and provides tremendous accuracy for dispatch.”
While Mahoney grew up in Hanson and “knows the town like the back of my hand,” Reardon said he could not remember the last time he hired a Duxbury dispatcher who grew up in the town or was familiar with it.
“That’s where we rely on technology,” he said. “I’m not going to know where Mary Smith lives, but I’m going to tell by the phone call you made where you are and I’m going to get you help.”
It is the first communications center outside Boston to take direct 911 calls from cell phones, Mahoney said. Currently, Hanson 911 calls are routed through the State Police, where calls are vetted by type of emergency and location and transferred to local responders.
“In a time where seconds count, that takes several,” Mahoney said. “In our facility, you call 911 and hit a tower anywhere in any other jurisdiction we serve, it rings in our room immediately — no transfer, no nothing.”
From the time the phone rings at ROCCC to the time a local responder rolls out of the station is 10 seconds, he said.
“That’s substantially below the national average,” Mahoney said. The national standard is 90 seconds, according to Reardon.
“Seconds really do matter,” he said.
ROCCC currently serves a population of 30,629 over 105 square miles with a capacity of 100,000 people. Hanson and Plymouth, which is also considering joining would come near to that limit, according to Mahoney.
Selectman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett has already toured the center and, while she still has questions about switching to a regional dispatch center, she urged the other members of the board to visit ROCCC for themselves. That said, she expressed concern that all member towns have “an equal voice” in the governance of the center.
“I want a completely equal say [for Hanson] at the table,” she said.
Right now the center is under the administration of the town of Duxbury, Mahoney said, noting that member communities pay an assessment to Duxbury. He works directly with member fire chiefs who have an equal voice and added that the state has approved allowing regional safety services to adopt a district form of government.
“Everyone hears the word district and associates it with the school system, especially here,” he said. “This is very different.”
A board of directors, made up of a selectman or town administrator from each town oversee the district, according to Mahoney and an operations board made up of police and fire chiefs deciding day-to-day operations.
The center features a fire communications desk as well as one for police and lead dispatcher. There are close to 100 monitors in operation as well as dispatch consoles, with all equipment funded by the state via 911 fees on cell phone bills. They also have the capability to monitor schools and do so already in Duxbury. ROCCC has just received authorization to do so in Rochester.
“If, god forbid, there’s a school shooting [reported] we can, at the push of a button, see what’s happening — who’s in there, where they are,” Mahoney said.
State grants are also available through its 911 Department, which has established funding tiers — with regional emergency communications centers the top priority.
“What that means for Hanson is that the cost of transition to ROCCC could, should and probably would be subsidized by state [funds],” Mahoney said. “Any wish-list items you have — the police department has, the fire department has, the town has — we can roll into future development grants.”
A grant is already permitting the center to expand its building in Duxbury.
ROCCC has three to five dispatchers, including a lead dispatcher around the clock, on duty at any given time so one person talks with the caller, another contacts local police and another contacts local fire departments to reduce response times, he explained.
While switching to ROCCC could save personnel costs to towns from payroll, benefits and other post-employment benefits (OPEB), according to Mahoney, that is not a guarantee for Hanson officials said.
“Besides whether the product is good, is this the right choice for Hanson,” Reardon said is the question officials must answer to their own satisfaction. “Rochester, without giving numbers away, cut their bill by almost two-thirds to come to us. They got a better service, they’re not paying benefits [to dispatchers] anymore, the state kicks in quite a bit to pay every year for them.”
Reardon and Mahoney also said current local dispatchers are able to apply for a position at ROCCC if Hanson joins, and that 100 percent of those local applicants have been hired despite what Reardon described as a rigorous process.
“With each town, we’ve added staff,” Mahoney said. “We’ve added positions. By doing that, we attract the best and the brightest in the dispatch community.”
“Why wouldn’t we want to take employees that know this town and have worked in this dispatch center and know the officers and firefighters?” Reardon said. “I think it makes for a much easier transition.”