Police considering switch to regional 911 dispatch

Abington officials are leaning towards moving the town’s police dispatch operations to a regional center in Holbrook.

The move would be done as much to smooth the call and response process, as it is to save money, Deputy Police Chief Chris Cutter and Town Manager Scott Lambiase told the Board of Selectmen Monday night. 

The Holbrook Regional Emergency Communications Center has handled emergency dispatch operations for the Abington Fire Department since 2012. The center also currently handles all police and fire dispatching for Holbrook, Rockland, and Whitman.

Although the board gave Lambiase and Cutter permission to continue moving forward with the process, a couple members said they will use the next couple weeks to research some complaints voiced online about effectiveness of the regional dispatch center, as well as see how Abington’s police union feels about the move.

“I have heard from a couple people who are very against it,” Selectmen Chairman Tim Chapin said, adding the town has worked hard to repair breaches between the police rank-and-file and brass. 

“I’d hate to burn that in one move,” he said. 

A growing number of 9-1-1 calls made in Abington are already routed through the Holbrook facility. Emergency calls in Massachusetts made using cell phones are transmitted from cell towers to one of multiple regional dispatch centers, not the municipality in which the call is made. Originally, emergency calls received by cell towers within Abington’s borders were routed through the state police dispatch center in Framingham, who would then transfer the call to Abington Police, or the appropriate town. A couple years ago, Abington chose to have emergency cell phone calls instead routed through the Holbrook facility. Calls are then transferred to Abington Police Department. 

When an Abington resident or business owner dials 9-1-1 from a landline, the call is currently answered at the Abington Police Department headquarters on Central Street.

However, the  number of 9-1-1 calls made using a landline is decreasing, while the number of emergency calls made using a cell phone is increasing. 

Cutter said there’s a couple factors behind his recommendation to transfer all dispatch operations to the Holbrook facility.

Currently, a dispatcher in Holbrook will field an emergency cell phone call, get a sense of the location of the emergency, and then transfer the call to Abington, where the caller has to then detail the problem again. This can delay a police response by up to 60 or 90 seconds, Cutter said. Transfer calls can also be dropped, or the caller can hear the transfer click and think the call ended.

“We’re cutting out the secondary call,” Cutter said. 

To emphasize this point, he played for selectmen a news report from a TV station in Florida that highlighted the problems dispatch centers had transferring calls between departments during the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018, which contributed to a delayed law enforcement response. 

“All it’s going to take is a couple incidents coming in at one time, or one major incident, and we wouldn’t be able to handle those calls adequately enough,” Cutter said.

Transferring dispatch operations to Holbrook could also free up budget space and manpower to put two more officers out on patrol without needing extra tax dollars, he said.

The regional dispatch center is funded through a combination of state grants and annual assessments to member communities, according to Stephan Hooke, the center’s Director of Communications. Abington currently pays $185,000 annually to the facility to cover fire department dispatch operations. The estimated cost of the regional center covering both Abington police and fire would be $340,000, with approximate 3 percent increases every year after that. That amount is less than what it would cost for Abington to operate its own dispatch center, town officials said.

The center recently moved into a new 6,000 square foot facility on Franklin Street in Holbrook. Construction costs were covered by a state grant.

Lambiase and Cutter said they would like to move quickly as the dispatch center is finalizing a state 9-1-1 Regional Development Grant, which gives priority to centers welcoming in new departments. The grant would fully cover Abington’s assessment for the first three years of the arrangement, 50 percent of Abington’s cost in the fourth year, and 25 percent of the town’s cost in the fifth year, saving taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars over the first five years. The deadline for the grant is March 1.  

The grant would also pay for any related infrastructure upgrades at Abington Police, including radios, antennas, and IT equipment, Hooke said.

Selectman Kevin DiMarzio voiced the most skepticism about the move, asking a number of questions about what was driving the switch, potential cost savings, and whether Abington should look at any of the other regional dispatch centers besides Holbrook.

“I would like to see us create more jobs in town, not jobs out of town,” he said.

A thread on a town Facebook group also made a number of claims that member towns were experiencing problems with the Holbrook facility and unhappy with it. 

Chapin encouraged anyone with concerns to speak with him or other board members directly, not just post online.

“If there’s something we should know about, please reach out,” he said.

Everyone on the board’s zoom call Monday night who has worked with the dispatch center acknowledged that there had been “growing pains” and “bumps in the road” during the initial set up. But each one said the issues had been quickly worked out and they were happy with the relationship.

“If we had legitimate complaints coming from the citizens of the town, we have not heard it,” said Rockland Deputy Police Chief Gerard Eramo, who was on the meeting.

Abington Fire Chief John Nuttall, who said Abington Fire has no intention of leaving the Holbrook call center, added that the regional center makes it easier and faster to request mutual aid from the neighboring towns.

Selectman Mike Kolodziej, who is an Abington fire fighter, said he can think of “three or four times” over the past seven years that the department has gotten an initial call that was meant for another town.

“But we’ve never really delayed a call or anything like that,” he said. “I haven’t had any issue with Holbrook dispatch.”

Tim Chapin, a former auxiliary officer in Abington who used to work the town’s dispatch desk, joked he probably made three or four mistakes in one shift.

Cutter said if the switch is made, the police station lobby would still remain open 24/7, and Abington police employees would still answer calls to the department’s business line.

Hooke said dispatchers already know Abington’s roadways from having worked with the fire department since 2012.

“We know the streets, we know the businesses,” he said.