August 06, 2020WHITEFIELD — In looking to the future, local towns are looking at creating a regional dispatch system. It is expected that the Department of Transportation will be phasing out the handling dispatch for North Country towns, including Groveton, Lancaster and Whitefield. The plan is to form a regional dispatch system within the next two years.
Whitefield Selectman Stan Holz said, "Lancaster owns the needed equipment, leaving staffing as the only cost. The phase in, phase out process will not cause a disruption in services, however cost to the towns will increase."
Lancaster's Assistant Fire Chief and the Town's Health Officer, Ted Joubert explained the backstory. Thirty-five years ago, the Department of Transportation (DOT) handled dispatch for plow trucks as well as road crews. In the mid 1980's, locally, the fire chief would receive the first call for an emergency, and then a phone tree would commence with each fire fighter calling six others and so on and so forth.
"Back then, the call volume wasn't as high as it is now, but then calls started to increase, and response time became even more important," explained Joubert.
For years, according to the Assistant Chief, the DOT has been operating dispatch free of charge, therefore no one questioned it.
"We knew it would come to an end someday, but there was never a concrete plan on how to move forward when DOT gave the word that operations would cease," explained Joubert.
Currently, the DOT has a hiring freeze and is a union, therefore is struggling as it is in regards to staff.
"If you calculate the number of people it takes to run dispatch, it's 4.3, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That means no call out days or sick time off. To be fair, there are a few part timers to fill in the gap, but it is still cumbersome," said Joubert.
Currently DOT covers Whitefield Fire, police and ambulance, Lancaster Police and Fire, Lunenburg Fire, Dalton Fire, Groveton Fire, Groveton Police, Stratford Fire, Stark Fire and towns such as Bloomfield, Granby and Brunswick. Weeks Hospital covers Groveton and Lancaster ambulance operations.
"Weeks and DOT are looking at the fiscal challenges and are not equipped or designed to do this much longer," explained Joubert.
The plan will be to start having conversations with town select boards and budget committees about the transition.
"We'll go from paying nothing to paying something expensive in terms of service, with the staffing being round the clock," he added.
On top of staffing, there is a high cost of tech, to include radios, computers and servers.
Joubert said, "Typically when we need to address taxpayers, we like to give them a few years notice. However, now things have reached critical mass and we're talking about a huge gap in coverage, so now we must prepare to have good conversations on how to move forward."
Each town would pitch in for their share of coverage. Smaller towns that have less demand on the system would pay less.
Joubert explained the training process is not a quick fix, either, noting "The cost to train a dispatcher runs about $14,000, and it takes four months before they can be on their own, so this isn't a fast process."
"Clear communication is the biggest priority when it comes to public safety. The better we can communicate to a police officer from a fire truck, etc., the more time we have to make appropriate decisions to keep everyone safe. Fundamentally there will be no project more important that you can invest in to make everyone safer," said Joubert.