There has been much discussion about the proposed Regional Emergency Communications Center (RECC) initiative that the town is evaluating. Over the course of several meetings, some virtual and others in-person, Town Manager Norman Khumalo has provided an overview of the recommendations of the feasibility study and has heard firsthand from residents.
On February 14, the Select Board will announce their formal position on the Inter-Municipal Agreement (IMA), the operating agreement between Hopkinton, Westborough, Southborough, and Grafton.
Many Hopkinton residents, several police officers, dispatchers, and firefighters have voiced objections to the RECC. After hearing many well-reasoned arguments, including from Fire Chief Miller, who is a strong proponent, the Editor concludes that moving to a RECC will cost Hopkinton more and make us less safe in the long run. What is more worrying is that voters may not get to decide the matter.
The RECC would create a centralized emergency operations center to support Hopkinton, Westborough, Southborough, and Grafton. Many residents have pointed out that this is similar to a blue state / red state issue, where Southborough and Grafton residents benefit much more than Hopkinton and Westborough. Today, Southborough and Grafton only staff one dispatcher per shift, and in a RECC they would enjoy more robust coverage.
Many residents have expressed worry about a “dark station”. Today, the Hopkinton police station is staffed by two dispatchers at all times, who in addition to regular duties, handle walk-in’s and prisoner watch, among other things. If Hopkinton moves to a RECC, the police station could be unstaffed during off hours, replaced by a telephone on the exterior of the building with a button that connects to the RECC. Both Khumalo and Chief Joseph Bennett have publicly stated that they do not support a dark station, but thus far the town has not presented a plan or a budget to mitigate this issue. The logical conclusion is that Chief Bennett will be forced to rotate an officer off the street to provide coverage at the station, which ties up an expensive resource and could make Hopkinton less safe.
At the January 4 RECC meeting hosted by the Senior Center, Hopkinton Police Sergeant Tim Brennan spoke about the courage it takes for someone to walk in to the station to file a complaint or to seek help in a domestic violence situation. “People want to talk to a person, not press a button,” he said.
The Collins report (the feasibility study commissioned by the State) suggests that there will be cost savings, but this has been refuted by Select Board member Muriel Kramer, who pointedly stated that there will likely be “no actual cost savings”. In fact, it may cost more for Hopkinton to move to a RECC than to operate independently as we do today. During the January 4 meeting, Kramer said that when the Board toured the Norfolk RECC, the operators made it clear that it “was not a cheaper alternative” and that they had “underestimated the staffing levels needed”.
Residents have repeatedly expressed their support for our dedicated team of dispatchers, led by Communications Director Meaghan DeRaad. The town currently employs 8 full-time and 7 part-time dispatchers, all of whom will terminated. They will have the option to reapply for their jobs at the RECC, but there is no guarantee they will get one. The IMA draft includes a clause for preferential hiring but it does not contemplate the seniority many of these long-term town employees have earned. Fundamentally, they would be starting over. Dispatcher Evan Brooks joined the town in 2002 at the age of 19 and has served Hopkinton faithfully. Dispatchers like Mr. Brooks should not be a victim of outsourcing when there is so little upside.
If and when the IMA is signed, the town is near the point of no return. While it is true that the latest IMA allows the town to sign and then rescind the decision by June 30, 2023, this appears to have been added for optics. The Select Board could add the RECC to the Town Meeting agenda in May, but the vote will be non-binding. State law recently changed, and now provides the Select Board with the full authority to join a RECC with a simple majority vote. It seems unlikely the town would invest so much time and energy into a decision that will ultimately be reversed.
The State, who currently services all 911 equipment, is pushing RECC’s as a way to cut costs. This is understandable. But as Director DeRaad stated, once the RECC is operational, the State will reclaim our 911 equipment. This is a bell we can’t unring. The Select Board is familiar with the Hopedale situation, who decided to join a RECC, only to determine later that it didn’t serve them well. Their equipment was reclaimed by the state, and Hopedale is now forced to rely on Upton for 911 services.
The decision to move to a RECC is too important to be made by the Select Board alone. The consequences of this will be far reaching and generational. This is a decision that should be left to the voters, particularly when the human and financial costs of moving to a RECC still largely unquantified.
* this article was updated on February 13 to clarify the opt-out clause in the revised IMA.
To be fair, I no longer have a dog in this fight, but as a former long-rime resident of Hopkinton, who continues to follow issues there, I am offering my two cents worth. I believe Hopkinton would be best served by retaining its own dispatch center. Here in northern Maine, larger towns and cities have their own dispatchers, while the majority of towns, being smaller, rely on a regional 911 center. As I listen to the scanner from time to time, it is clear to me that the local dispatchers have a clear advantage with timely response and valuable local knowledge. Not disparaging the regional center, they also do a great job, but I believe local is better. Good luck in your deliberations, and thanks for listening.
Seems like the Select Board is keen to go for the RECC, despite commentary from townspeople and RECC users in other towns.
The facts are that the RECC will not save us money, and the police station will go dark.
Why not invest in the equipment we need to stay with the local option, and invest in the dedicated staff who have served us so well?
I am truly dismayed that the RECC may be pushed onto the townspeople of Hopkinton.
While I understand the purported benefits of combining forces with a larger group, sometimes bigger is not better. I still have not seen a good argument in terms of the benefits to Hopkinton, and it puts us at the mercy of a less local group and focused group with potentially diverging priorities. Keep things the way they are!