Police union: ‘No confidence’ in 911 center

TOPSFIELD, MA — Topsfield police officers have become the second public safety union in recent months to take a vote of no confidence in the Essex County Regional Emergency Communications Center.

In a letter to Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins last week, officers said town officials should conduct an independent assessment of the regional 911 center “before a tragedy takes place.”

Officers said dispatchers at the center, which serves five communities, have frequently sent Topsfield police officers to the wrong address “and even the wrong town.”

“The Topsfield Police Benevolent Association feels as though we, or someone in the community, is going to get severely injured due to these deficiencies,” the letter said.

The $11 million Regional Emergency Communications Center opened in 2013 next to the Middleton Jail. Proponents had said combining dispatch services in one location would save money and provide the latest technology for the handling of police, fire and medical emergency calls.

But the RECC, as it is known, has been plagued by problems and complaints. The city of Beverly, which would have been its largest member and biggest revenue provider, withdrew before the RECC ever officially went online. In September, the Amesbury firefighters’ union took a vote of no confidence in the center, calling it a “complete failure from the start.” Amesbury switched its police dispatch over to the dispatch center in mid-2014; firefighter dispatch was switched over last June.

Topsfield police officer Shawn Frost said his union, which consists of 10 officers, took its no-confidence vote because RECC officials have not responded to the union’s written complaints.

“We’ve been in the RECC center for almost two years and it’s just been getting worse,” he said.

A spokesman for Cousins, who oversees the RECC, said the sheriff would not comment on the letter because he considers it a union matter that should be addressed to that town’s police chief.

Topsfield police Chief Evan Haglund said the issues raised by his officers are not new. He said the dispatch center is improving under Shad Ahmed, who was hired as its director in March.

“He’s already addressed a lot of these issues,” Haglund said. “I just think he needs a little time.”

In the letter, Topsfield officers said call takers at the RECC — “on numerous occasions” — fail to obtain critical information from 911 callers on such matters as weapons, injuries and criminal history. Radio calls by police to the RECC asking for more information often go unanswered, the letter said.

By the time police are dispatched to the location of an erratic driver, the vehicle is already out of town, the letter said. Police have also been dispatched late or not at all to medical aid calls, according to the officers.

The letter said many RECC dispatchers are “very polite” and have “great radio etiquette,” but some of them talk too fast and cut themselves off. Dispatchers also are unfamiliar with town landmarks that can help identify an officer’s location, the letter said.

Frost said Topsfield officers met with Ahmed last week about their concerns. He said Ahmed was receptive, but officers are skeptical that improvements can be made.

Dispatchers have not been adequately trained and are forced to work overtime due to short staffing, according to Frost. The center has also had problems with its software program.

“It’s almost designed for failure,” Frost said.

Officers know they cannot return to the days when they had their own dispatcher in the police station, Frost said, but explained that the no-confidence vote is an effort to let the public know about the problems and perhaps spur the necessary changes.

“We’re stuck with it,” he said. “We just want to see it try to get better. We just don’t know if it’s possible at this point.”

From The Newburyport News