The Colchester Selectboard unanimously voted to appoint assistant town manager Aaron Frank to a joint survey committee last Tuesday, dedicated to exploring regionalized emergency dispatch in Chittenden County.
The selection marks the town’s first formal step forward after a nine-town Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission study culminated with a presentation late last month.
National consultants from a California-based firm called Deltawrx say a regionalized dispatch model could shorten emergency response times by 60 to 90 seconds, create a cost-efficient staffing structure and provide the chance for career advancement among employees.
The committee will be tasked with creating and approving a union municipal district, a governance structure that would need an endorsement from residents via public vote.
Colchester was the third to send a representative to the committee, preceded by South Burlington and Shelburne. At their own meeting, Winooski town officials expressed support for the undertaking, Frank said, but have yet to select an appointee.
Frank and town manager Dawn Francis have been integral players in the dispatch discussions, helping to present the study’s findings at other selectboard meetings around the county. On Monday, they both attended the Essex Selectboard meeting, where officials decided to postpone discussions of an appointment until next month.
At last Tuesday’s meeting, Colchester Selectboard members expressed enthusiastic support for the measure. Selectman Herb Downing called the proposed system a “no-brainer” and pointed to the town’s ongoing dispatch partnership with Milton as an example of a successful operation.
“You’re preaching to the choir here,” Downing said. “I’m absolutely sold. I think you’re going to find that Colchester is going to be a real partner going forward.”
But Burlington Fire Chief Steve Locke, who represented his town during the study, cautioned the board about impending obstacles. Towns have discussed regionalization for half a century, he noted, without reaching ultimate success.
“Today, we can’t tell you what this looks like financially,” Locke said. “We hope to slow the escalating cost of dispatching, but ultimately I would be surprised if out of the gate we see any savings.
“No one is kicking and screaming,” he continued. “But everyone is wondering how we can make it happen.”
Locke told the board the study’s participants are keeping a list of roadblocks to address. In an interview last Wednesday, Frank said there are around 45 items and counting.
Atop the list are staff backfill issues. With dispatchers taking on a breadth of tasks far beyond answering calls, Locke said departments would have to decide how many staff members they’ll need to replace if the answering operation moves offsite. Those town-by-town decisions will directly impact overall cost savings.
Losing those onsite workers will be a big hurdle for community members and sworn personnel alike, Locke said, dollar amounts aside.
“When the lieutenant walks into his own center, they’re people he sees every day. They know his voice, he knows their voice,” Locke said. “It’s a comfort level.”
Still, Locke and Frank say they’re keeping the ultimate goal in mind at every turn: increased service during an emergency.
“Those could be our loved ones, your loved ones,” Frank told the selectboard, explaining this was the major reason town officials pursued the measure in the first place.
Once all involved selectboards make a decision, the committee will begin sifting through the intricacies of forming a whole new governing body. Frank estimates he’ll spend anywhere from 5 to 10 hours per week on regionalized dispatch work once the committee is formed.
The group will have until January to get any proposal on next year’s Town Meeting Day ballot, but solid numbers will likely need to be in place far sooner to allow individual towns to begin crafting their budgets.
“We’ll fit it in,” Frank said. “It’s exciting to be a part of it.”