It was standing room only tonight at the Hopkinton Senior Center, as Town Manager Norman Khumalo hosted a listening session with the community regarding the potential move to a Regional Emergency Communications Center (RECC).
In August, the Town was presented with a report and an addendum with project costs from the Edward J. Collins Center for Public Management that concluded a consolidation of Police and Fire dispatch functions into a regional communications center is feasible for Hopkinton, and would likely result is cost savings.
The proposed RECC would combine emergency dispatch functions in Hopkinton, Westborough, Southborough, and Grafton, who today operate independently. This is widely seen as a money saving measure for the State, which currently covers the cost of maintenance and service for the town’s 911 systems. As an incentive to move to a RECC, the State provides financial assistance in the form of grants.
Khumalo was joined on the dais by Chief of Police Joseph Bennett, Fire Chief William Miller, Communications Director Meaghan DeRaad, and two associates from the Collins Center, Tom Kennedy and Steven Foley, who authored the feasibility study. Select Board members Amy Ritterbusch, Mary Jo LaFreniere, Muriel Kramer, and Shahidul Mannan also joined.
In addition to the more than 80 citizens that attended, the room was noticeably filled with uniformed and retired Hopkinton police officers, firefighters, and members of the dispatch team.
Khumalo made a brief opening statement, thanking the public for their participation and feedback in the process. He stressed that the town has only been presented with a feasibility study at this point, no decisions have been made, and many questions remain unanswered.
Mr. Kennedy spoke next, and presented the findings and recommendations from the report, (see page 50).
A lengthy question & answer session with the audience followed. Overwhelmingly the sentiment was against the RECC.
“Who makes the final decision?,” a Theresa Road woman asked. “Will it come to Town Meeting for a vote?” Mr. Kumalo outlined the process, which was confusing for some in attendance. He explained that the first step is that the four towns must agree to work together, entering an Inter-Municipal Agreement, or IMA. The Select Board has the authority to make the decision to enter the agreement. The towns must then decide if they wish to form a District, or to operate the RECC as a “Hosted Center”. If the decision is to form a District, it will require approval at Town Meeting. If a Hosted Center is chosen it will not come to vote at Town Meeting.
One woman, who was a former Outreach Coordinator in the town, said that it helped to know the local dispatchers in her job. Moving to a RECC would mean the dispatchers would likely be based in Westborough, and would not know the people in our Town. Chief Miller responded that “RECC’s are very popular with fire services and have been around for decades.” Miller also indicated that 25% of the 351 municipalities in Massachusetts are part of a RECC.
Chief Bennett, motioning to the dispatchers in attendance, spoke next. “I want start by saying that I’m very proud of all you officers, and the work you do. Undoubtedly, we give the most caring service of any police department I’ve ever seen. Should the town decide to go to the RECC, I worry about you (dispatchers). I’m worried about you right now, I want you to know that.” Then to the audience he said “What I can commit to you is that I will work tirelessly, whatever decision is made, to provide the best level of care that I can.”
A Davis Road resident pointed out that if Hopkinton adopts a RECC, our dispatchers will lose their jobs with the town and will be forced to reapply with the RECC, with no guarantee of being hired back. Several residents expressed dismay at this.
A Mayhew Street resident asked “If we sign the IMA, are we obligated to stay in, and if we back out is there a penalty?” Khumalo responded that there is a cost to join the IMA, and there would be a financial penalty if Hopkinton withdrew. Communications Director DeRaad added that any equipment provided by the RECC (radios, for example) would need to be returned in that event. She also stated that “once we enter the RECC, our 911 equipment will be reclaimed by the State, and we cannot get it back easily.” Select Board Member Kramer told the audience that the Town of Hopedale had decided to enter a RECC, only to reverse course later, and lacking their 911 equipment, are now forced to rely on Upton for 911 services.
Hopkinton Police Sergeant Tim Brennan, speaking as a resident, highlighted other duties Hopkinton dispatchers have. “Prisoner watch, for example. When an officer makes an arrest, our dispatchers check on the prisoners every half hour. In a RECC, that would have to be done by an officer, and there is a significant cost to that.”
Many police officers, firefighters, dispatchers, and residents voiced their objection to the “dark station”. Today, the Hopkinton Police Station is staffed by two dispatchers at all times, accepting walk-in’s at any hour. In a RECC, the station would be unstaffed during certain hours, and visitors would be required to use a telephone to connect to the RECC for assistance.
Many citizens were adamant that Hopkinton has it’s own “lingo” and idiosyncrasies that all Hopkinton police and firefighters know. They know, for example, the difference between Clafin Street, Clafin Avenue, and Clafin Place, whereas a dispatcher from another town may struggle.
Pat O’Brien, a retired Hopkinton police officer who served 32 years, made this comment: “The Hopkinton Way is the Right Way. If we go to a RECC we will lose that. I urge the Select Board to oppose this initiative.”
After two and a half hours, Khumalo closed the discussion, thanking everyone for their participation and attendance.
Like Pat O’Brien, I strongly support our Hopkinton Police and Fire Departments and the outstanding services they provide to all citizens. There is a shared community knowledge base in Hopkinton that I believe we should preserve.
I believe the implementation of RECC would diminish our strong community ties and the ability of our dedicated police and fire personnel to respond in the same caring way that they now do.
I urge the Select Board to keep the “Hopkinton Way” intact and oppose this initiative.