Fire Officials Pose Questions About Proposed Dispatching Change

Fire officials, who are considering a proposed move of local emergency radio dispatching from Town Hall South to a regional dispatching center in Prospect about 25 miles away, are seeking answers to questions about what effects, positive and negative, such a change might hold in terms of Newtown fire protection.

Members of the Board of Fire Commissioners met on May 19 to again discuss the proposal to shift the dispatching for 911, police, fire, and ambulance calls from the Newtown Emergency Communications Center at 3 Main Street to the Northwest Connecticut Public Safety Communication Center, Inc at Route 68 in Prospect.

The cost implications of such a dispatching move are yet unclear.

Asked to comment on the financial effects of such a change, Town Finance Director Robert Tait said May 20, “We are reviewing the [financial] data and must make sure it contains all the elements required to do an ‘apples to apples’ comparison between current [dispatching] operations and regionalization opportunities.”

Mr Tait said he expects that the specific financial effects of moving emergency dispatching to Prospect would be discussed at an upcoming Police Commission meeting.

A town study panel comprising Jeffrey Capeci and Neil Chaudhary is researching the dispatching issue for the Board of Selectmen.

Police Commission members on May 13 discussed the many issues stemming from the proposed dispatching change, generally expressing skepticism that such a move would be beneficial.

The Newtown Police Union has said it opposes moving dispatching to Prospect, charging that it would damage the quality of dispatching.

The town dispatchers’ union similarly opposes the proposed change, noting that its nine members’ town jobs would end if the dispatching move is made. The private, nonprofit Prospect center is nonunionized.

Newtown Volunteer Ambulance Corps Chief Mike Collins has said that local dispatching works well, in questioning the need to move it to Prospect.


Fire Officials

The Board of Fire Commissioners has seven members, one from each of the five local volunteer fire companies, as well as two civilian at-large members.

Chairman Rob Manna, who represents Newtown Hook & Ladder, told commission members that he is working to set up visits by fire officials to the Prospect center to familiarize them with that dispatching operation.

On April 29, police officials toured the Prospect center. The Prospect center handles the emergency calls for many fire and ambulance agencies, as well the Middlebury Police Department.

Lisa Goosman, who is a civilian member of the Board of Fire Commissioners, raised concerns about Town Emergency Communications Director Maureen Will’s membership on the Prospect center’s board of directors while Ms Will simultaneously is advocating that Newtown move its dispatching to Prospect. Ms Will receives no pay as a member of the Prospect center board.

“Maureen has a vested interest in the [Prospect] dispatch center and that kind of bothers me. She’s not being totally impartial,” Ms Goosman said.

On that subject, Ms Will has said, “I do not believe it’s a conflict [of interest]. Every time something comes up on Newtown [while serving on the board], I recuse myself, I leave the room,” she has said, stressing, “I don’t believe it’s a conflict.”

Sandy Hook Fire Chief Bill Halstead said May 19 that it is unclear to him why the proposed move of dispatching services from Newtown to Prospect is not subject to the municipal bidding process.

“I don’t know why this doesn’t have to go out to bid,” he said.

Chief Halstead said he has discussed with several area fire chiefs the quality of service which they receive from the Prospect center. Those fire officials are from Beacon Falls, Oxford, Seymour, Woodbury, and Roxbury, he said.

The chiefs to whom he spoke told him they receive good dispatching service from the Prospect center, he said. The center is “procedure-driven” and bases its dispatching routines for a given municipality on the requirements of that municipality, he said.

“[The chiefs] all had nothing but good comments on it,” Chief Halstead said. However, the Sandy Hook chief noted he still has many questions about the implications of switching Newtown’s dispatching to Prospect. He asked, “Is this a mandate from the state?”

Scott DeVico, spokesman for the Office of Statewide Emergency Telecommunications (OSET), said May 20 there is no state mandate for municipalities to shift their emergency dispatching to regional centers, such as Prospect.

The state, however, does encourage municipalities to make such a shift for the sake of efficiency, he said.

Whether there ever would be mandate is an issue for the state legislature to decide, Mr DeVico said.

Whether a given municipality should move its emergency dispatching to a regional center is an issue for that municipality to decide and to resolve on the local level, Mr DeVico said.


Board of Fire Commissioners

At the May 19 Fire Commission meeting, Chairman Rob Manna asked about the term of relocating emergency communications. He asked, would such an arrangement last for a specified time period, such as ten years or 20 years? Would the town be “locked in” to some dispatching agreement?

Lisa Goosman observed, “There are so many ‘ifs.’”

“Prospect has a very good reputation. But I still have a lot of questions,” Chief Halstead said.

Civilian board member Kevin Cragin said he wants to hear all five local fire chiefs’ views on the advantages and drawbacks of moving dispatching to Prospect.

Hook & Ladder Fire Chief Ray Corbo suggested that Newtown become the hub of a regional dispatching operation in this area.

Dave Ober of Hook & Ladder said that the push for municipalities to regionalize their emergency dispatching is financially driven by the state, which is seeking to lower its costs through such a change.

Mr Ober said that having Newtown serve as the hub for a regional dispatching center in this area could be more workable than having Newtown move its dispatching to Prospect.

The Prospect center currently handles dispatching for agencies including Beacon Hose Company No. 1 in Beacon Falls, Bethlehem Ambulance, Citizens Engine Company No. 2 in Seymour, Oxford Center Fire Company No. 1, Great Hill Hose Company in Seymour, Woodbury Fire Department, Middlebury Volunteer Fire Department, Bethel Volunteer Fire Department, Brookfield Fire Department, New Fairfield Fire Department, Stony Hill Volunteer Fire Department in Bethel, Thomaston Volunteer Ambulance, Wolcott Volunteer Ambulance, Middlebury Police Department, Seymour Ambulance Association, and Oxford Ambulance Association.

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