OPED: Regional plan has great potential

When I was a reporter covering Shelton in the “old days” — I guess 40 years ago qualifies for that designation — I sometimes used to show up for the monthly meetings of the Valley Council of Goverments. The organization was comprised of the mayors and first selectpersons of Shelton, Ansonia, Derby and Seymour, and its mission was to discuss ideas for the four towns to cooperate on a regional basis.

I only attended the Council meetings on slow news days when I had nothing better to write about. That’s because each of the chief executives had his own ax to grind, “regionalization” was a fiction, and the meetings amounted to 90 minutes of blather during which absolutely nothing was accomplished (except for the time when one of the mayors managed to scuttle a road project in his city, after explaining that the project would hurt his brother-in-law’s store if it went through).

Although there are exceptions, traditionally the leaders of Connecticut’s 169 towns don’t much care for regionalization, preferring their cherished Yankee independence instead.

So it is encouraging to learn that Fairfield and Westport are discussing a regionalization plan for emergency communications.

Fairfield’s emergency communications center for fire, medical and police services is currently located in the basement of the police department.

But it dates back to 1990, and the equipment is nearing the end of its lifetime. (It is also in a flood zone.)

A plan to relocate to Sacred Heart University — in the former General Electric building — would see Fairfield and Westport combine to run a joint dispatch center expected to be up and running by Jan. 1 of next year.

In a story in today’s Citizen, Fairfield Fire Department Chief Denis McCarthy describes the effort as “good strategic sense” and said a two-town force would help “people in the field get faster backup.”

Deputy Chief Donald Smith said that savings would be in the long-term, particularly in the purchase and replacement of equipment.

“Instead of one municipality paying to upgrade their center, it’s now multiple municipalities splitting the cost to upgrade centers,” Smith added.

Smith noted said that while there may be potential for other municipalities to join forces with Westport and Fairfield, it would be limited to these two for the time being as it is “a pretty large project.”

Costs related to moving and equipment, according to Smith, would come in the $2 million -$2.5 million range, something town bodies would look at how to fund.

In March of last year, Fairfield and Westport split the cost of an $80,000 consultant study from Virginia-based Federal Engineering on how a combined center would be run.

Former police chief Gary MacNamara, now the executive director for public safety and government affairs at Sacred Heart University, said the university was prepared and anxious to form a partnership with the two towns.

The towns would pay the university a symbolic $1 for the space on a yearly basis as part of a partnership.

It’s encouraging that a realistic regionlization plan for emergency communications in the works. Fairfield and Westport have lots in common, and the new system has the potential to save money and be far more efficient than the current operations — despite our towns’ cherished history of Yankee independence.

Tom Henry is the editor of the Fairfield Citizen