Call for help: Cumberland County sees itself as solution to dispatch dilemma facing towns
FALMOUTH — When most people dial 911, their biggest concern is getting emergency service as quickly as possible. The location of the person who answers the call is probably far from the caller's mind.
But as budget crises force more Maine communities to make drastic cuts, some towns are considering consolidating dispatch services with their neighbors. As the debate simmers over where to locate dispatch centers, how much to charge a neighboring town, and what happens to displaced employees, Cumberland County dispatch, which already handles calls for the Sheriff's Department and 13 towns, wants to convince all county towns to sign on.
"It could save taxpayers millions of dollars," Assistant County Manager Bill Whitten said. "It is just unbelievable what so many of these communities could do to save money without cutting teachers or school programs."
While going through the county may save money, many area fire and police chiefs say there are disadvantages, too. Concerns about the dispatchers' knowledge of a town's topography and streets, not having direct feedback with the employees, and not having a person at the local station 24 hours a day, are only a few of the issues.
$50K per employee
The county handles full dispatch for 13 towns and is the Public Safety Answering Point, or 911 answering center, for 18 communities. The county uses a standard formula based on population to determine the number of employees it will need to cover a town's call volume and charges communities $50,000 per employee for full dispatch.
This includes the 12-week training program new county dispatchers must complete before they are allowed to answer calls. Because county employees are often assigned to multiple towns, officials say this can be a substantial savings when compared to towns hiring and training their own dispatch employees.
The town of Cumberland is seeing the results of those savings. The town first consolidated its dispatch services with Yarmouth, saving approximately $100,000. Then, a year and a half ago, Cumberland moved its dispatch to the County Communications Center in Windham, saving another $100,000.
"Obviously we'd prefer to have it in house. But I cannot complain about the services we receive from the Cumberland County service center," Cumberland Police Chief Joseph Charron said.
Charron said that the town had to consider the costs of operating its own dispatch versus the $115,000 it pays the county to handle all its emergency calls.
"Considering these economic times, we're getting a good bang for our buck," he said.
Bill Holmes, who is the director of Emergency Communications for the county, is in charge of making sure towns like Cumberland receive the services they pay for.
"I believe that if we let the dispatch employees do their jobs, and they do a good job, (towns) will come to us," he said.
Holmes explained that having six to eight dispatchers on all the time is perhaps the biggest benefit for small towns that choose to go through the county.
"When two or three calls come in at the same time, it can get crazy for a small dispatch. But here, we can all work together," he said.
In the event of a large fire, for instance, one employee would take the call and dispatch a fire truck, while another puts a call out to Central Maine Power to turn off the power to the building and another calls for mutual aid, Holmes said.
However, this is not so dissimilar to what Cumberland had before it moved to the county.
"We do so much mutual aid with Yarmouth and Falmouth," said Cumberland Fire Chief Dan Small. "We had a tone called mutual select that notified all three towns at the same time."
When dispatchers used the mutual select option, they could call for mutual aid at the same time as calling for the local response. This meant that response times to the neighboring towns were very fast.
But now, with Cumberland going through the county, when Yarmouth has a fire that requires mutual aid, the dispatcher must determine the nature and location of the emergency with the caller, send out the Yarmouth trucks, then pause and call the county to request mutual aid.
"We used to get there at the same time. Now we're more like five or 10 minutes behind," Small said.
Yarmouth joins Falmouth
After a citizen petition overturned a plan for Yarmouth to send its dispatch to the county two years ago, the town council regrouped and voted to consolidate dispatch services with Falmouth. The consolidation will save Yarmouth approximately $200,000 and will bring in some additional revenue for Falmouth.
Falmouth Fire Chief Howard Rice said the town considered sending its dispatch to the county several years ago, but that the deal with Yarmouth is enough to keep things local for the time being.
"We prefer to have it in house," Rice said. "When (the dispatchers) are in town, they know the town."
Rice said there have been times when dispatchers have known about road construction or changes in the roads, and have helped the emergency crews get to locations faster because of their knowledge.
"They also do administrative things for us. As long as the relationship (with Yarmouth) goes well, this is better for us," Rice said.
Holmes said he would be the first to admit that the county dispatchers will not do administrative paperwork or issue burn permits. However, he said towns such as Gorham have installed cameras outside the Police Department. The feed from the cameras is sent to the Windham communication center, where it can be monitored after hours. The dispatch center can even open and close doors in the police and fire departments from the remote location.
Holmes also explained that the technology the county uses maps all of the calls, including cell phone calls, and immediately provides the dispatcher with the closest fire or police station and directions to the emergency. The program even maps fire hydrants, so the dispatchers can provide that information to the emergency crews as well.
"A town can plug changes into the computer, so if a road is under construction, we'll know that," Holmes said.
The county also recently won a grant to install a microwave radio system throughout the county, which will allow for more radio interoperability. This will mean that, in the event of a large-scale emergency where multiple departments are responding, there will be one channel for all the departments to use for communications.
As towns like Freeport – where the Town Council voted last week to send dispatch to Brunswick – struggle with what to do when local dispatch is no longer economically feasible, it is likely the debate will continue.
The Freeport decision, for example, is being challenged by a citizen petition.
"Folks want to have their own local control. We understand that," Holmes said. "We will support and respect any decision they make."
Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or firstname.lastname@example.org