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Keene Sentinel: Cheshire County touts emergency communications to Kuster in Tuesday visit

Keene Sentinel: Cheshire County touts emergency communications to Kuster in Tuesday visit

Cheshire County’s emergency dispatch center once “literally was a closet,” County Administrator Chris Coates says. But after a multimillion-dollar upgrade completed in fall 2016, the center is better equipped to handle what staff say are daily calls about substance-use issues.

The county’s emergency communications capabilities were the subject of U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster’s visit Tuesday to Cheshire County Hall in Keene. Kuster met with Coates, Sheriff Eli Rivera and other local government officials to discuss an $875,000 grant the county was awarded this past August to buy and install new radio systems for the dispatch center.

The center responds to police calls in Cheshire County outside Keene city limits while Coates said Southwestern N.H. District Fire Mutual Aid in Keene handles calls involving fire departments between 67 communities in New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts.


The grant funds were approved by the Northern Border Regional Commission, a federal-state partnership that awards community development projects that support job creation in parts of New Hampshire, Vermont, New York and northern Maine, the commission’s website states. The commission was enacted by Congress in its 2008 Farm Bill and is supported by private-sector investments.

Rivera told Kuster, D-N.H., and others in a roundtable meeting that Cheshire County intends to add a new radio channel with new systems purchased through the grant, allowing for clearer communication between dispatchers and police officers. He added that existing equipment is no longer supported by manufacturers.

“We’re dispatching anywhere between 12 to 30 or 40-plus officers on one channel, so the traffic can get a bit crazy,” Rivera said in the meeting. “With the installation of a second channel, we can move some of the non-emergency calls to the secondary channel [and use] the primary channel for just emergencies.”

Coates thanked Kuster for her role in expanding the NBRC’s reach to Cheshire County in the 2018 Farm Bill, where she and U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, also D-N.H., added Cheshire and Belknap counties to areas eligible to receive commission grants.

“The last three years have been a challenge with the ever-changing dynamics that we face from COVID to the long-term effects that are ongoing,” Coates said to Kuster. “... We realized that our economic numbers were no different than Sullivan or Grafton counties, but we weren’t on [the commission], so we reached out to you, and you were able to put it down on the Farm Bill.”


Other areas in New Hampshire represented in the NBRC are Sullivan, Grafton, Carroll and Coos counties, and the commission covers all of Vermont.

NBRC Federal Co-Chair Chris Saunders echoed appreciation for Kuster in an emailed statement shared by the congresswoman’s communications team.

“Strengthening telecommunications networks across the region is a priority for the Northern Border Regional Commission,” Saunders said. “We are able to invest in this type of critical infrastructure in New Hampshire thanks to the support of Congresswoman Kuster and her colleagues in Congress.”

Officials speculated in Tuesday’s meeting that the grant could improve response times by dispatchers amid the ongoing opioid epidemic affecting Southwestern New Hampshire. Jill Robinson, a dispatcher with the Cheshire County Sheriff’s Office, told Kuster she and her colleagues often relay calls she believes are based in substance-use issues and that first responders are sometimes called to the same people repeatedly in these cases.

County Commissioner Bob Englund, a retired Keene physician, said in the meeting about 52 percent of those incarcerated at the Cheshire County jail are on medications for opioid-use disorders, though he noted the rate of former inmates still on medications after they’re released from incarceration or leave the county is harder to track.

Kuster recalled a time about 10 years ago when, she said, Cheshire County was one of the earliest areas of the state impacted by the epidemic.

“At that point we didn’t have this issue over even in Concord because it was coming up I-91, and now obviously the whole state and over into Maine and whole country really are dealing with this opioid epidemic,” Kuster said.

Following discussion between Kuster and county officials, Rivera gave the representative and others a brief tour of the upgraded dispatch center.