Editorial: Region readier for emergencies with Worcester-Leicester dispatch center

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Almost everyone can think of a time they called 911, or can imagine a moment when they might. When life suddenly isn’t normal, the quickness and professionalism available at close hand are a marvel.

Residents in Worcester and Leicester now have a state-of-the-art, joint dispatch center that they’ll hope to never call — but that will be ready if they need to.

Dispatchers serve as key links between the public and emergency responders. For many years, Worcester’s crew of about 50 fielded calls from cramped quarters in the police station. The handful of dispatchers in Leicester have also long worked out of that town’s police station, performing other administrative duties when the lines were quiet.

With this new, dedicated facility — a large and light-filled structure at 2 Coppage Drive in Worcester, close to the airport and the Leicester border — the dispatchers’ working environment improves dramatically. It is difficult, if not impossible, to properly calculate how important that is for a stressful job that requires focus and judgement.

Break rooms, spacious work stations and other amenities are designed to serve the employees well so they are better able to do the same for the public.

More directly impacting safety, the center comes with a $7 million upgrade to digital radio transmissions. Gone, officials say, are the dead spots and static of Worcester’s older radio system. When ticking seconds are critical, the public is clearly served better when dispatchers’ communications with police, fire and ambulance personnel are smoother.

The center also will be the new home for Worcester’s Emergency Operations Center, which had set up in Fire Department space on Grove Street when necessary.

Edward M. Augustus Jr.

Courtesy NAMI Mass

Edward M. Augustus Jr.

We agree with City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. when he said at the Aug. 10 dedication of the center: “Investments in public safety infrastructure are some of the smartest money a city can spend.”

Worcester’s dispatchers have been working at the new facility since Tuesday, Aug. 9. Leicester dispatchers will make the move in about two months, according to a Telegram & Gazette report.

Massachusetts the last couple of decades has been urging, and in some cases incentivizing, municipalities to explore regionalization of some municipal services. With the rise of expensive but powerful advances in communication technologies in recent years, regionalization of dispatch functions seems a strong candidate. But it has been slower to catch on than some officials had hoped.

The partnership between Worcester and Leicester on 911 dispatching, the first in the state, thus serves as a test case of emergency communications on a regional scale. That’s all the more reason to hope the partnership succeeds and serves as a model for other municipalities, and to expect officials to study closely the center’s day-to-day operations and efficiencies.

There is room for several other area municipalities to join Worcester’s regional dispatch center in the months and years ahead. It will be interesting to see whether nearby towns join in after the agreement between Worcester and Leicester gets a few month of on-the-job training under its belt.

The idea for the regional center initially elicited interest from several city neighbors, but only Leicester stuck the project out through a series of construction delays that set it back nearly two years. Delays included a union strike at Verizon and trouble with the delivery of steel.

The facility also exceeded its $4.2 million price tag by about $2 million. Worcester is footing the bill, partly using state funding that includes a $1.6 million Regional Public Safety Answering Point Development Grant and $600,000 from the State 911 Department.

The project has also qualified for various other government funding, part of which will be used to soon allow the center to handle 911 calls made by cellphones, officials say. State Police route those calls to the appropriate place, but Worcester’s new center positions it to handle the technologies of today and tomorrow as well as the emergencies.

“There’s a lot of dynamic changes for us,” the city’s Emergency Communications director, Richard Fiske, said in a Worcester Magazine story last month. “It’s the most exciting time our department has ever seen, and probably ever will see for a very, very long time.”

The bottom line, meanwhile, is the same as it’s always been: Emergency response needs to be quick and coordinated.

Through the regionalization shifts, equipment upgrades, construction snags, grant requests and thousands of daily dispatches behind the scenes, what matters the most is that the center is ready to react when something happens that we least expect.

As Fiske said at the building’s dedication, “Our city is a safer place.”

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