By Chris Maza
LONGMEADOW – Over the past few weeks, Longmeadow public safety departments quietly transitioned to the newly minted WestComm Regional Emergency Communication Center.
Now fully operational, the collaborative project between Longmeadow and the city of Chicopee was designed to not only cut costs but update, streamline and optimize emergency response for both communities.
“We’ve found it went smoother than anticipated,” Police Chief John Stankiewicz said of the transition. “The information from officers that we’ve received has been positive and it’s clear we have well-trained dispatchers.”
One Longmeadow fire captain called it “the biggest safety improvement in 32 years,” Fire Chief and Emergency Management Director John Dearborn told the Longmeadow News.
What makes WestComm so valuable?
More dispatchers, better support
WestComm is headquartered at the Chicopee police station and manned around the clock by certified 911 operators, Executive Director Erin Hastings explained. Certification requires 84 hours of training in addition to 24 hours of additional training in order to be recertified annually. While dispatchers who previously worked in Longmeadow had the option to move to WestComm, all but one opted to seek employment elsewhere or retire. While still adequately staffed, Hastings and Dearborn both noted the center’s roster is not yet fully staffed.
“We are still short two [dispatchers] from reaching maximum staffing,” Hastings said. “When hiring these positions, multitasking is the biggest thing and someone with a public safety background is a priority as well.”
Between business and emergency, WestComm dispatchers field nearly 300 calls in a given day, Hastings said. While the volume is high, WestComm provides dispatchers serving Longmeadow a luxury they never had before – backup.
Multiple operators available at any given shift creates necessary redundancies that allow dispatchers to provide additional information and support to callers and first responders while also ensuring that calls are answered in a timely fashion even with other emergencies in progress, Dearborn explained. Dispatchers are trained and have emergency response cards that are used to assist and guide callers in emergency situations while help arrives. In one recent instance a caller reported someone was choking, Dearborn said, and a dispatcher was able to coach them through the situation and helped them dislodge the food before EMS arrived.
“Those are critical moments,” Dearborn said. “That dispatcher helped save someone’s life and if they were working a shift alone, they might not have had the opportunity to do that.”
Extra staffing can also help with challenges such as greater call volume during weather emergencies, he added, noting during the recent microburst, Longmeadow dispatchers were not able to field every call and some were forwarded to their backup support in East Longmeadow.
“We want to make sure that when the phone rings, someone is going to be there to answer it,” Dearborn said.
With that in mind, redundancies are not limited to personnel. Technologically, WestComm has built-in failsafes to ensure continuous service in the event of a system failure. Even if the entire communications center experienced a catastrophic event, Longmeadow public safety is equipped with the technology to maintain services. Part of planning the facility, according to Dearborn, was trying to dream up worst-case scenarios and planning for them.
“We even went up and unplugged the communications tower [in Longmeadow] just to test it out and see what would happen,” he said. “The system found another way around to keep communications going.”
The system is self-monitoring, Hastings added, explaining she and other stakeholders like Dearborn receive instant alerts if there is a problem.
Dearborn acknowledged there had been some concern among residents that new dispatchers would not have the same familiarity with the town as those who had been previously stationed at the Longmeadow Police Department. Technology, he said, can help make up some of the difference. In one instance he used as an example, a couple from Connecticut traveling home from Vermont were forced to park in Longmeadow when the driver began experiencing chest pains.
“His wife had been sleeping and she didn’t even know what state they were in,” Dearborn said. “But when she called 911, the technology at the dispatch center was able to pinpoint the location of the phone and direct services to her. She was amazed that they were even able to confirm the name of the business they were parked in front of.”
Hastings added that the technology gives dispatchers greater “situational awareness” that can improve response times.
“There could be a situation where the car in that district isn’t actually the closest available,” he said. “Dispatchers have the ability to see where the cars are and call a car that isn’t necessarily in the district but is closer, giving them the chance for a more immediate response instead of just dispatching the district car.”
The dispatch center is also connected with “a couple hundred cameras in Longmeadow,” Dearborn said, creating a visual network designed to assist in the monitoring of activity and emergency response.
“If there’s an issue at a school, for example, WestComm is connected with the cameras there and can provide guidance and support to responders,” he said.
Even simple upgrades like new radio systems will ensure public and first responder safety. Both Dearborn and Stankiewicz noted there are areas in town – namely the Western Avenue area, Interstate 91 and near the Connecticut River – where service is less than optimal. There are instances as well in some buildings and basements where they do not work at all. The chiefs used the words “spotty” and “scratchy” to describe communication in these areas.
“Clear communication is always key,” Stankiewicz said. “Other than our motor vehicles, communication is the tool we need most often to assist citizens. It’s also an obvious safety issue for our personnel.”
One area of adjustment for citizens will be the concept of a “dark” police station. A records clerk will be available to assist residents from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. during the week, but no longer will there be someone at a desk in the lobby at all hours. Officers will still be available to speak to the public upon request, however. An intercom system installed in the lobby connects with officers inside the station and if no one is available inside, residents can speak to a WestComm dispatcher who will direct an officer to the lobby.
When planning and discussing WestComm, Dearborn told the Select Board on multiple occasions that the regional approach would offer significant cost savings along with the added safety benefits. In June 2018, he reported the town would be responsible for just over $300,000 in capital expenses over the next five years, representing a projected $1.5 million in savings for hardware and software upgrades that would have been necessary regardless.
Standing in the operational communications complex this January surrounded by new equipment, Dearborn noted WestComm would benefit from nearly $6 million in new technology and upgrades.
“These are upgrades that would have had to happen regardless. The value of the communications system alone would be about $2 million if we had to do it on our own. They’re huge expenses that now won’t be passed on to taxpayers,” he said. “There is a significant long-term savings.”
For Chicopee, he added, having dedicated dispatch services meant firefighters no longer had to perform the duties and a closed station now has the staffing to reopen.
Room for expansion
The WestComm regional model has changed since it was first introduced. In addition to Chicopee, the plan originally included East Longmeadow and Hampden before they eventually backed away. But the opportunity for more communities to join the fold still exists.
Hastings explained the current outfit has the capacity to take on up to two additional communities, depending on their size and needs, and Dearborn expects that to happen soon.
Hastings explained the center is designed to be easily moved in the event of additional expansion beyond one or two towns. The computers and hardware could be easily relocated and installed in a location better suited for larger dispatch operations.
“There are several other towns interested. We anticipate within the year having one to two additional towns. We’ve had several meetings and we intentionally built this with expansion in mind,” Dearborn said. “A lot of towns sat back to see how this would go and I think we’ve proven that it’s working. ”