Fire dispatchers in Coventry to get new digs

COVENTRY — For years, Coventry fire dispatchers have been stuck in an outdated building using antiquated methods for taking service calls. But with the town council’s approval this week of a proposal to relocate the fire dispatch system into the new Police and Human Services Complex, the department is poised to receive some long-awaited operations improvements. 

Colonel John MacDonald, chief of the Coventry Police Department, told councilors Monday that to consolidate the fire dispatch system within the new police headquarters would be “well worth” the investment.

“We think it’s the right time to do this,” MacDonald said. “We think it’s a good investment for the future for public safety, to have our dispatchers side-by-side in one place.”

Currently, fire dispatchers are housed in the Stanley Mruk Building on Main Street. The building’s most recent upgrade was in the 1990s, and its radio equipment is “at or near the end of its life,” MacDonald wrote in an overview of the proposed merger to the town council and interim town manager.

Fire dispatchers, who in 2018 handled 6,700 calls for service, have been stuck using mostly paper and pen to record information. As calls come in, they must sift through binders to locate and verify cross street addresses in order to decide what resources to dispatch. 

“This is a time-consuming effort when seconds count,” MacDonald wrote, adding that the risk of equipment failure also means “disruptions can occur with unpredictable downtimes.”

As the police department prepares to move its headquarters into the new, state-of-the-art facility on Wood Street, MacDonald said it just makes sense to bring fire dispatchers in, too. 

In a progress report to the town council Monday, Bill Finnegan, chair of the building committee, said construction on the new facility is running a bit behind schedule, due to delays in permitting and various complications in the building process.

“I can tell you the [building] committee has worked relentlessly to keep this project moving forward and on budget,” Finnegan said, adding that a partial certificate of occupancy is now expected to be issued by mid-September. 

With plans to begin relocated the police department in the fall, MacDonald said having police and fire dispatchers working alongside one another “will undoubtedly improve” emergency management coordination.

“Any kind of major event, we’re going to be collocated, side-by-side,” he said. “It’s just much better than the current condition.”

Fire Chief Frank Brown echoed that. 

“We’re providing a better level of safety for our people, which is paramount,” Brown said, pointing out that the fire dispatcher currently works alone in the Stanley Murk Building.

MacDonald added that he expects consolidating into the same building would reap significant operational savings, estimating that the town currently spends between $12,000 and $15,000 annually on things like electricity, heat and internet at the current fire alarm building. 

Once fire dispatchers have moved into the building, MacDonald said the next step will be to get them onto a Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) system, which he added should quicken response times and lessen the risk of error. 

In his overview of the merger, MacDonald wrote that moving fire dispatch to a CAD system would be a “giant leap… toward providing our citizens with the services they expect and deserve.” 

Brown agreed, adding Monday that the department “needs to get there.”

Brown said that moving to a CAD system would also improve the department’s International Organization for Standardization rating — currently, Coventry Fire Alarm has a rating of 4 out of 10 — which in turn would decrease fire insurance costs.

“Just that alone is a benefit to the town and the taxpayers,” Brown said.  

Funding for the merger and system upgrade will come from an emergency management communications account that’s funded annually by the fire departments and emergency management agency. 

There’s currently in the account close to $140,000, which MacDonald said should be plenty to cover the merger. The subsequent switch to a CAD system, he added, should be around $45,000, plus an annual fee of between $6,000 and $8,000. 

Town Manager Ed Warzycha said Monday he thinks bringing the fire dispatcher into the new facility is “a great move.”

“I think it’s needed,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of time in the [Stanley Mruk Building] doing installations, repairs, phones… and I am not going to miss that building the least bit.” 

Warzycha called the building’s equipment “antiquated,” and added that “it’s a real difficult situation to keep [the building] operational.” 

As for the future of the Stanley Mruk Building, MacDonald said he’s spoken with Brown and the Coventry Historical Society about the possibility of establishing a fire museum at the site, and Warzycha said it will likely be sold.  

With Town Council President Kerry McGee and Councilor Gary Cote both absent, the town council unanimously approved the fire alarm headquarters’ move into the Police and Human Services Complex.

MacDonald on Tuesday lauded Lee Bessette, a dispatcher with the Coventry Police Department, for helping to conduct research into the project. He added that he hopes residents see the consolidation and proposed system upgrade as “a unique opportunity” to improve public safety in town. 

“My hope is that the community also recognizes the value in this investment to improve our communications, joint operations and our town’s public safety posture,” MacDonald continued.

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