Belchertown eyes regionalizing dispatch services with Wilbraham

The Belchertown Police Department at 70 State St.

The Belchertown Police Department at 70 State St. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

The Belchertown Police Department at 70 State St.

The Belchertown Police Department at 70 State St. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Senior dispatcher Iain Knight fields calls on Wednesday afternoon at the Belchertown Police Department. The town is in the process of transferring  its dispatch services into the Wilbraham Regional Emergency Communications Center effective July 1.

Senior dispatcher Iain Knight fields calls on Wednesday afternoon at the Belchertown Police Department. The town is in the process of transferring its dispatch services into the Wilbraham Regional Emergency Communications Center effective July 1. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Senior dispatcher Iain Knight fields calls on Wednesday afternoon at the Belchertown Police Department. The town is in the process of transferring  its dispatch services into the Wilbraham Regional Emergency Communications Center effective July 1.

Senior dispatcher Iain Knight fields calls on Wednesday afternoon at the Belchertown Police Department. The town is in the process of transferring its dispatch services into the Wilbraham Regional Emergency Communications Center effective July 1. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By EMILEE KLEIN

Staff Writer

Published: 03-08-2024 2:09 PM

BELCHERTOWN — The town this summer is likely to become the latest to follow a growing trend in the region of outsourcing emergency communications to regional dispatch centers.

Staffing shortages for dispatchers and $7.6 million in upcoming radio equipment repairs are motivating Belchertown’s emergency service personnel to move dispatch services into the Wilbraham Regional Emergency Communications Center on July 1. In addition to providing adequate staff, Belchertown Police Chief Kevin Pacunas said regionalization will push the town’s radio repairs toward the top of state grant priorities.

“I looked at other agencies and other communities around us that offer the same service and Wilbraham was definitely the right fit,” Fire Chief John Ingram said.

Belchertown will compensate Wilbraham for use of the town’s dispatch center, but according to Pacunas the exact rate and contract are still under negotiations.

Pacunas and Ingram prefer Wilbraham because of its proximity to the town and its state-of-the-art facility. Unlike WESTCOMM Regional Dispatch in Chicopee that serves Longmeadow, Monson, East Longmeadow and Ware, the dispatch center in Wilbraham handles only Hampden and Wilbraham.

Belchertown currently has five dispatchers who work full time and four who are part time, but Pacunas said the station requires at least eight or nine full-time dispatchers to handle the call demand. The town receives 16,000 to 18,000 calls for service per year, of which 1,700 are 911 calls. Without the extra hands, dispatchers work longer weeks, adding another roadblock to the already-difficult process of recruiting new staff.

“We normally have two (dispatchers) on. Sometimes it’s only one,” Pacunas said. “This (move) will give us three to four per shift if we regionalized. Granted, Wilbraham and Hampden will also be in the mix, but it’s not very often that all four dispatchers are going to be on one call from one town.”

The police chief said the Belchertown dispatchers have the option to take positions in Wilbraham.

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Despite the changes, the police station won’t be empty. Three part-time clerks will greet residents who enter the station, fill out paperwork and operate the traffic window. When a resident calls the police and fire department non-emergency numbers, one of the part-time clerks who will replace the dispatchers will answer. When the clerks are not working, the call transfers to Wilbraham.

“We are still going to have some part-time clerks there with office hours so that if somebody needs to be at the station for some reason, there will still be a face,” Town Administrator Steven Williams said. “Even though Belchertown is a big town, we still have a small town atmosphere and we still need to maintain.”

Regionalization will also increase the town’s chances of landing state grants to replace or repair aging radio equipment, as the state gives preference to regional dispatch centers when handing out money.

“By doing this it will bring us hopefully to the top of the grant cycle,” said Ingram, noting that the radio system infrastructure on the side of the police station needs to be addressed. “Our radio infrastructure right now is very poor and we really need to get that up and running.”

Pacunas clarified that radios still work and Wilbraham dispatchers can still communicate with officers in an emergency. However, parts of the radio system will fail, resulting in unstable communication.

“July 1 is the date we’re going to officially make the move. We’ll have a soft start in June,” Pacunas said. “But you know, if for some reason we’ve lost all our dispatchers because they know that the end is coming, Wilbraham could hit switch anytime and we could make the move.”

Regionalization will cut funds used to train emergency service personnel on the dispatch system, as well as salary and benefits for nine employees. Williams said he’s still working out the exact amount regionalization will save the town.

Both chiefs affirmed that the state is encouraging regional emergency communication centers to cut operation costs. Regionalizing now, they said, allows Belchertown to pick the best center to join. The Select Board agreed.

“(Regionalization) sounds like it’s coming. If we don’t do it now, we will be forced to do it in some other way,” Select Board Member Peg Louraine said.

Other Hampshire County towns have regionalized in recent months. Southampton, for example, last fall transferred its dispatch services transfer to Easthampton.

Another example is the WESTCOMM Regional Dispatch that serves five communities in Hampden and Hampshire counties.

Emilee Klein can be reached at eklein@gazettenet.com.