Following a decision by the New Hampshire Department of Transportation and Weeks Medical Center to end what had been more than three decades of public safety dispatch services out of DOT’s District 1 in Lancaster, a number of western Coos County towns are about to make the switch to Grafton County’s dispatch system.
“We’re on track for starting service to the agencies now served by NHDOT on August 2, and the agencies dispatched by Weeks Hospital sometime in early September,” Tom Andross, the special deputy sheriff and communications director who leads Grafton County’s dispatch system, said Thursday.
The towns with police departments that have been serviced through DOT and WMC at District 1 headquarters are Whitefield, Lancaster and Northumberland.
The towns without police departments that have been serviced by District 1 include Stark, Jefferson, Stratford, and Dalton in Coos County, and Lunenburg, Guildhall and Maidstone in Vermont.
“We will have contractual agreements with the departments/towns that provide service,” said Andross. “A couple of the Vermont towns don’t have departments of their own and are served by New Hampshire Fire/EMS.”
Grafton County anticipates serving all of the same departments and towns that DOT and Weeks have served, he said.
It’s currently uncertain if more dispatchers will be needed.
“We will be monitoring and evaluating the impact this new work will have on our current staffing before we will know for sure,” said Andross.
In a region like Coos, dispatchers are familiar with communities and areas and can pinpoint to an arriving first responder the location of an emergency scene.
Andross addressed a concern voiced by some that that could be lost with a dispatch services switch to Grafton County.
“I understand the concern,” he said. “Most towns do a great job working with the 9-1-1 systems of both states to keep accurate addressing and maps current. Both New Hampshire and Vermont have excellent 9-1-1 systems and mapping resources available to us. Of course, it’s always important for people to use 9-1-1 in an emergency and to ensure their addresses are prominently displayed for responders. Wireless calls to 9-1-1 continue to increase, but we do have a number of resources available to help locate callers who may not be able to easily identify their own locations.
“It’s important to remember the responders themselves will almost always be ‘local’ and do a great job of knowing their response areas and the particular hazards unique to their areas,” said Andross. “For this area, we are also working with DOT and with the public safety departments in acquiring the local reference material they have accumulated so we can enter that into our computer-aided dispatch system, which is supplemented by the 9-1-1 data.”
The switch from Coos to Grafton dispatch came after DOT and WMC announced last year that they would be ending their services at the end of 2021.
The central dispatch command center for Grafton County is located at the county complex in North Haverhill.
In March, when the plan was less advanced and more preliminary, Andross said Grafton County dispatch can service all of the communities that need to make the switch with no gaps or delays in service, and said with today’s technology, a dispatcher can be just about anywhere and do the work.
DOT’s District 1 in Lancaster, one of six DOT maintenance districts in New Hampshire, is the only DOT maintenance district in New Hampshire that has provided public safety dispatch services.
DOT’s other maintenance districts only dispatch DOT maintenance crews.
The public safety dispatch services contracts will vary depending on a town’s population.
On March 1, Northumberland selectmen signed a letter of intent to transfer that town’s dispatch services to Grafton County with a proportionate cost of $25,650 for the balance of 2021.
Some towns also had related articles on the annual town meeting warrant.
At the March town meeting, Lancaster voters approved an article asking them to see if the town will establish a dispatch services capital reserve fund for future costs of dispatch service for the town’s police, fire and ambulance and raise $50,000 to be placed in the fund, with the money to come from Lancaster’s unassigned fund balance.