A year after four South Shore towns combined their emergency dispatch operations, managers said emergency response is finally working as intended.
“Calls are up, complaints are down,” summarized Hingham Town Administrator Ted Alexiades.
The progress is a far cry from where things started in August 2012, when Hingham, Hull, Cohasset, and Norwell finalized the multi-town initiative.
Though regionalization was intended to generate efficiencies, the dispatch center budget was higher than anticipated for three out of the four towns in fiscal year 2014 – the first full year the center would be in operation.
Difficult transitions with new software and new operating procedures intensified training difficulties and personnel issues, officials said. Managers also reported that dispatcher contract negotiations resulted in morale issues.
Negotiations are still ongoing, but Maureen Shirkus, executive director for the Center, said other growing pains have all but dissipated.
“Training issues have turned the corner,” Shirkus said in a phone interview. “…There was a learning curve we all had to go through with the equipment we were using. You had to learn the geography of every town. You can teach someone that but it takes time and exposure to it.”
While the proposed fiscal year 2015 budget has not lessened – Alexiades reported a 5 percent increase in the requested budget due to increased staffing requests and software upgrades, other measures point to success.
Staff said improvements have been seen in emergency medical dispatch – requiring medical instruction to be given on the phone while police or fire is being dispatched – due to increased staff. Response times have also improved due to centralized operations and new technology, staff said.
Complaints from staff are also down as internal problems have dwindled, Shirkus said.
Repetition has helped solve many of the problems, but internal changes have also created improvements. Shirkus said dispatchers are now assigned by department, rather than dispatching all calls by town.
“One day you’re a fire dispatcher, the next you’re a police dispatcher…that has helped,” Shirkus said. “If you’re doing Hingham and Norwell Fire Departments, they do a lot of mutual aid, you know who is where and what’s going on.”
Fire and Police chiefs have also made an effort to familiarize themselves and their crews with dispatchers, developing relationships with the new people on the other end of the phone line.
Turnover has also helped bring in new dispatchers who are more adaptable than legacy employees, and work load redistribution has dispatchers multi-tasking less.
“[There were] little things like that we needed to learn, because no one had done it before… We’ve come a long way since we first opened the door,” Shirkus said.
Emergency responders outside the dispatch center agree that change has been for the better.
“We’re making good progress and we’ve made a lot of significant changes that have made life a bit better,” said Hingham Deputy Fire Chief Robert Olsson. “It’s to be expected when you take four towns and combine into one thing … you take a bit of time for people to adjust.”
In addition to streamlined operations, new technology - $5 million total given to the regional group from the state – has improved record management, Olsson said.
“The data has always been captured but our ability to use that data is significantly improved,” he said.
Hingham Deputy Police Chief Glenn Olsson also pointed to the technology as merely one of the new system’s benefits. Unlike before, officers can read calls on their computers before they are spoken over the radio, and respond faster to emergencies, he said.
Monthly meetings between all four towns have also increased communication and collaboration, he said.
Improvements are especially noticeable within storms, Olsson said, when call volumes are high and dispatch is able to operate unimpeded.
“Sometimes people get impatient. You want to turn the switch and have everything work. In real life, things never go as smoothly as you want to,” he said. “As long as people stay positive and keep moving forward, you end up with a good product. And it’s starting to show.”