WINHALL — Leadership at the Winhall Police Department, preparing for an eventual reduction in state Department of Public Safety dispatch services, is considering contracting with the town of Manchester for police and fire communications.
On Wednesday evening, Police Chief Derrick Tienken told the Winhall Select Board that he’s had conversations with Manchester officials and Winhall Select Board Chairman E. Stuart Coleman about moving the town’s police, fire and rescue dispatch to Manchester.
Tienken is confident that, given his department’s existing relationship with the Manchester Police, it will work well.
“Manchester has an established dispatch structure, they have strong mutual aid relationship with us already, and their dispatchers have local knowledge of our area,” Tienken said.
Tienken told the Select Board that it would cost about $90,000 annually for police and dispatch services, and another $7,500 for fire and rescue service. At present, Winhall gets its police dispatch services from the state for free, and its fire dispatch from a provider in Keene, N.H., for $42,000 per year.
The next step, he said, is conferring with Wells Communications, the radio provider for Manchester and Winhall’s Police departments, to see what infrastructure improvements would be needed to make the change.
That corresponds with a discussion held by the Manchester Select Board on Tuesday, at which interim Town Manager Leslie Perra told the board that there might be interest in the town’s dispatch services — and an additional reason to invest in a new dispatch console that would allow two operators to work at the same time. The current board is 11 years old and at the end of its life, she said.
Perra said she did not have firm details on how many agencies might be seeking Manchester’s dispatch service, or firm costs on what a replacement console would cost. She hoped to have a more detailed presentation with firmer equipment and staffing costs when the board next meets.
On Thursday, Owens said that with his department’s current dispatch staffing of four full-time and three part-time workers, “We would be able to dispatch for Winhall with the current staff level.”
If the department were to add customers in addition to Winhall, “We would have to evaluate the call volume and needs of additional agencies to determine if we needed additional personnel,” Owens said in an email. “We have plans to expand the dispatch center to accommodate a second dispatcher if needed.”
Tienken said the state Department of Public Safety is “moving away from dispatch for municipal agencies” and looking to establish grant-funded regional dispatch centers. However, no one has stepped up to take on that responsibility in Bennington County, he and Owens said.
“They’re combining different channels together,” Tienken said of the way the state is coping with the workforce shortage. “The responses to our officers aren’t as quick as they used to be.”
Asked about whether the state is getting out of dispatching for local police and rescue agencies, “It’s not a question of if, but when,” Owens said.
Earlier this week, Vermont State Police spokesman Adam Silverman said the department “is still moving forward researching a path forward for centralized centers and possible grant funding, but this is down the road. VSP has no current plans of dropping municipal agencies soon.”
According to Tienken, a memo from the Department of Public Safety in June indicated that its dispatch workforce was down by 54 percent. Silverman said Thursday that the current vacancy rate sits at 40 percent, with 24 vacancies out of 66 positions.
Silverman also provided text of a memo from current Public Safety Commissioner Jennifer Morrison, informing local agencies that as of Oct. 1, “all agencies dispatched by the Westminster PSAP [public safety answering point] we will no longer answer non-emergency phone calls for your agency.”
“If you have not established a phone tree or other solution, we will drop all non-emergency calls into a voicemail box and provide you with access to retrieve the messages,” Morrison said.
“This is not the level of service we aspire to or that your community expects from all of us,” she added. “Please find a way to divert callers away from the PSAP. Our staff is here to help you build a phone tree or find another solution that meets community needs.”