BELLOWS FALLS -- Starting next month, 911 callers requesting assistance in Bellows Falls may find themselves talking with a dispatcher from the Windham County Sheriff's Department.
On Aug. 13, the Bellows Falls Board of Trustees signed a contract with Sheriff Keith Clark, in which his dispatchers will be answering calls for the village police department between 4 p.m. and 8 a.m. weekdays, and 24 hours on weekends and holidays.
The Bellows Falls Police Department will continue to provide its own dispatching Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.
"We've actually been thinking about it for a while," said Bellows Falls Police Chief Ron Lake, "but the technology wasn't in place to do it."
Lake said newly installed fiber optic lines made the contract feasible.
"And I can save money," he said. "That's key."
Potential savings, mainly through the reduction of his dispatch staff from three to one, could be $100,000 of the first three years of the contract, said Stefan Golec, vice-chairman of the Board of Trustees.
"This is something I've been waiting for since 2007 when contracting out for services was first mentioned at a Trustee's meeting and to see it finally come together is welcomed. The decision for me was a no-brainer when we discovered we could save money in the dispatching area without compromising safety and quality," said Golec. "This will allow us to control costs and with the new partnership I also expect dispatching and officer efficiency to improve, which will benefit the community."
Roger Riccio, the president of the Board of Trustees, said it was a unanimous decision to sign the contract.
"Both fire and police say this will improve our emergency response tremendously," said Riccio. "Also, this should save us money. We are not only looking out for the safety of the people in the village, but we are also trying to save money."
"The actual number to be saved is totally an estimate at this point," said Chip Stearns, municipal manager.
A number of factors need to be figured into the system before a completely accurate financial reckoning can be presented, he said.
"We are also changing the incident reporting system over from Spillman to Valcour, which is a web-based system any officer with a smart phone can log into and enter data, rather than having to use a secure VPN network," said Stearns.
Valcour was developed by the Burlington Police Department and is named after Valcour Island in Lake Champlain, the site of a historic naval battle in 1776. Burlington Police Chief Mike Schirling, who designed the system, told Seven Days in October 2012 that he wanted a system that was "simple, intuitive, easy to use and platform independent ... and it needed to be lower maintenance and lower cost." After the BPD developed the system, for a cost of $85,000, it made the system available to other police agencies in the state for $125, plus $17.50 per officer.
Lake assured the public that the dispatch changeover won't affect public safety.
"We'll still have 24-hour dispatch and the lobby will be monitored by video," he said. "Officers will still be on the clock. An individual will be able to pick up a phone in the lobby and it will ring directly to dispatch in the sheriff's office."
"In some ways, the public will be even safer than they are now," said Clark.
Under the current system, he said, when a person calls 911, an emergency operator determines where the call is coming from and then sends it to the appropriate agency.
"Right now, police, fire and rescue calls all go through the Bellows Falls Police Department," said Clark. "The BF dispatch then calls rescue and dispatches fire. There can be a delay getting any one of those responders."
An agreement to utilize Keene Mutual Aid for fire and EMS dispatch also is in the works, said Stearns.
"Fire, except Bellows Falls, has been regionally dispatched through Keene Mutual Aid. We're finally getting on the bandwagon," he said. "What we do know is we will have a much improved dispatch system, primarily for the EMS side, which is provided by Golden Cross."
Dale Girard, the president of Golden Cross Ambulance in Claremont, N.H., said he is comfortable with the board's decision because it will make dispatching a crew to an emergency more efficient.
"We have no concerns on our behalf," said Girard. "If it's in their best interests, it makes sense for us."
Lake said it's not easy having to lay off two of his dispatchers, but he said their specialized training makes them a very valuable asset to any organization.
"At the same time, Sheriff Clark will be looking for two dispatchers. I'm not saying who he will hire, but we will be releasing two," said Lake.
"I'm not guaranteeing any of their dispatchers will be employed by me," said Clark. "However, if they apply, they would the first considered for the positions."
The new dispatch system will be tested from Sept. 1 through Sept. 15 and if all goes as planned, it will go live on Sept. 16, said Stearns.
Bob Audette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.