Further Consolidation of PSAPs Anticipated

(from Maine Townsman, July 2010

By Douglas Rooks

By this time next year, municipal police departments may be dealing with another round of reductions in the emergency call answering centers known as PSAPs.

The anticipated consolidation follows a similar move by the Legislature in 2003, which took Maine from 48 to 26 PSAPs, also known as Public Safety Answering Points.

The prospect does not enthrall many municipal officials.

“I have very little confidence in the Legislature doing the right thing,” said Falmouth Police Chief Ed Tolan, whose department is taking over dispatch responsibilities for Yarmouth and North Yarmouth.

Some others are more positive.

“Our hope is that this time towns will join with their partners and come up with plans that work,” said Maria Jacques, director of the Emergency Services Communication Bureau (ESCB) at the Department of Public Safety. “The only way to design a good plan is for the local experts to come up with the answers.”

The previous PSAP reductions were overseen by the Public Utilities Commission, with considerable involvement from the commissioners themselves. The object this time is to enlist greater municipal involvement, and generate less resistance, though exactly what will happen won’t be clear until Jacques’ bureau drafts a plan for the Legislature to consider in 2011.

A template for the new process is outlined in a report released in January by L.R. Kimball, a Pennsylvania-based communications consultant hired by the Legislature. The Kimball report recommends an “optimal PSAP reconfiguration” to between 15 and 17.

The earlier round was actually supposed to end with no more than 24 PSAPs, but the PUC couldn’t get agreement to go below 26.

LEARNING CURVE

Jacques said the state learned from the earlier process, and those lessons are reflected in the Kimball report. Prominent is the recognition that simply merging PSAPs can have unintended side effects and may not produce the anticipated savings.

Reducing PSAPs without considering the underlying network of dispatch centers – many of which remained open after the earlier consolidation – has resulted in “an emergency communication system that is more complex and fragmented than existed prior to the PSAP reduction,” the Kimball report finds.

The report identifies a number of adverse impacts, including an increase in the number of transferred calls and “rate shopping” that has led some municipalities to contract with different PSAPs for police, fire and emergency calls. Other issues include cost shifting from one entity to another, and “a lack of collaboration” between state, county and local agencies.

One of Kimball’s key findings is that, without doing more to align dispatch operations with the PSAPs that serve them, further consolidation of PSAPs may only further fragment emergency response, while not saving a significant amount of money.

Municipalities that have cut their emergency communications expenses have done so by consolidating their dispatch centers. That can lead to significant savings in personnel costs.

The results of the earlier PUC consolidation of PSAPs bear this out. Most of the 22 PSAPs that were closed were municipal centers, but only a handful went out of the dispatch business. Many would have preferred to have kept their PSAPs, too.

Kennebec County Manager Bob Devlin, where the county gave up both its PSAP and its dispatch operation in favor of the state’s regional center in Augusta, said something had to change.Cumberland Regional Communications Center

He said, “States like New Hampshire and Rhode Island have two PSAPs for the whole state,” one of them a backup. “Kennebec County had five for just 117,000 people.”

While Gardiner and Kennebec County ended their dispatch operations, Augusta, Waterville and Winthrop – all former PSAPs – retained theirs.

Some dispatch operations are even smaller. On Mount Desert Island, whose four towns have a combined population of 11,000, there are three dispatch centers, in Bar Harbor, Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor.

BY THE NUMBERS

Of the 26 current PSAPs, four are operated by the state, 13 by counties, and nine by municipalities. As of June 1, there were 31 municipal dispatch operations without PSAPs, though three of those are closing. Freeport will switch to Brunswick, Yarmouth has gone to Falmouth and Windham will use the services of Cumberland County. All are reporting substantial budget savings as a result.

Cumberland County Manager Peter Crichton, who oversees the largest regional dispatch center in the state, as measured by participating towns, cautions that it’s not just about money.

“We emphasized from the beginning that we could offer a superior service. We want to show towns that we can improve emergency response through a regional center. That’s the most important part of the equation from our point of view,” he said.

Cumberland County, where Crichton has been manager since 1998, commissioned a study of potential regional operations from L.R. Kimball in 2004, which found that municipalities could save up to $2.8 million in annual operating costs through a regional dispatch center.

Although the county had always handled dispatching for some small towns, Gorham became the first major new client, in 2005. Since then, Crichton said, Gorham has saved nearly $1 million over its previous dispatch costs, or $200,000 a year.

More towns have come aboard. Gray, which doesn’t have a police department but did dispatch its emergency calls, saved $200,000 a year by joining. Cumberland, which left Yarmouth and joined the county in 2008, estimates savings at $80,000 annually. And Windham, the latest to join, approving the contract at its June town meeting, expects to save $130,000.

In all, Cumberland County dispatches for 13 municipalities and handles PSAP duties for 19.

Crichton said one reason why towns have been willing to use a regional center that offers state-of-the-art equipment is that they are members, not just clients.

“We set communications up as a separate department, with its own board of directors. Each town has a seat and gets one vote. And we really listen to them,” he said.

Cumberland County assesses costs on a per capita basis, rather than by call volume.

“Towns measure calls many different ways. The Kimball report recommended that we use population instead of volume, because it’s more accurate and ultimately fairer,” he said.

The growth of the Cumberland County center has prompted considerable rethinking of dispatch operations in the region. It has affected towns that have decided to join the county operation, as well as those that ultimately did not.

YARMOUTH’S DECISION

Yarmouth used to dispatch calls for Cumberland and North Yarmouth (the latter without a police department), until Cumberland decided to accept the county’s offer in two years ago. That left a significant hole in the budget for Yarmouth, said Town Manager Nat Tupper.

Tupper then prepared several scenarios, including one with no changes – which he recommended – and the possibility of going with the county, which the town council ultimately adopted.

But the move proved controversial, with concern among town employees and, ultimately, the voters. A group of citizens launched a referendum effort that resulted in a town meeting vote against the switch.

At the time, Yarmouth had seven full-time dispatchers. Councilors interpreted the vote to mean maintaining the operation at its existing level – even though Cumberland’s departure meant fewer calls. For 2009, though, the town cut back to four dispatchers, with the budget decreasing from $425,000 to about $315,000.

This year, with budget pressures mounting, Yarmouth decided to take a look at an offer from neighboring Falmouth, which just opened a new police station and dispatch center.

Tupper said that the $200,000 Yarmouth will pay Falmouth is thus about half what it took to run the Yarmouth dispatch center two years ago.

“They made us the same offer as the county had,” he said. “And this time there was a greater comfort level.”

Falmouth agreed to give the four Yarmouth dispatchers priority for hiring, and two of them went to work for Falmouth. Another is with the Buxton dispatch operation, while the fourth has not found similar work.

Crichton said Cumberland County also tries to hire displaced dispatchers, and often does. “We hired two of Gorham’s dispatchers with our first contract and they’re still with us.”

Still, a regional center requires fewer employees that the local centers that are replaced – that’s where most of the savings come from. Cumberland County now has 26 dispatchers working three round-the-clock shifts, usually with six on duty.


DEFINING THE DIFFERENCE

A Public Safety Answering Point is an agency that receives and processes 9-1-1 calls only. As the PSAP receives each call, a basic interview is complete and the call is transferred to the appropriate dispatch site.

A Dispatch Only Site only provides dispatch functions. These sites do not receive 9-1-1 calls directly. All 9-1-1 calls are transferred from other PSAPs.

(Source: Kimball Report, January 2010)


Maine Public Safety Answering Points

(PSAPs) June 2010

Androscoggin County
Bangor Police Dept.
Biddeford Police Dept.
Brunswick Police Dept.
Cumberland County
Maine Dept of Public Safety – Augusta
MDPS – Gray
MDPS – Houlton
MDPS – Orono
Franklin County
Hancock County
Knox County
Lewiston-Auburn Emergency Comm.
Lincoln County
Oxford County
Penobscot County
Piscataquis County
Portland Police Dept.
Sagadahoc County
Sanford Police Dept.
Scarborough Police Dept.
Somerset County
Waldo County
Washington County
Westbrook Police Deparment
York Police Dept.

Total: 26

Municipal Dispatch Centers without PSAP

Augusta Police Dept.
Bar Harbor Police Dept.
Bridgton Police Dept.
Bucksport Police Dept.
Buxton Police Dept.
Caribou Police Dept.
Carrabassett Valley Police Dept.
Ellsworth Police Dept.
Falmouth Police Dept.
Freeport Police Dept.*
Fort Fairfield Police Dept.
Fort Kent Police Dept.
Houlton Police Dept.
Kennebunk Police Dept.
Kennebunkport Police Dept.
Kittery Police Dept.
Lisbon Police Dept.
Madawaska Police Dept.
Mount Desert Police Dept.
Old Orchard Beach Police Dept.
Presque Isle Police Dept.
Saco Police Dept.
South Berwick Police Dept.
South Portland Police Dept.
Southwest Harbor Police Dept.
Standish Dispatch
Waterville Police Dept.
Wells Police Dept.
Windham Police Dept. **
Winthrop Police Dept.
Yarmouth Police Dept. ***
*Transferred to Brunswick, July 1
** Transfering to Cumberland County
*** Transferred to Falmouth, June 15

IMPACT ON EMPLOYEES

Displacement of town employees was certainly a big issue in Freeport, which just concluded a long and emotional debate over dispatch, closing its center and moving to Brunswick as of July 1.

The town council discussed a possible closing last year but decided against it. This year it voted to make the move despite a public hearing that featured pleas from residents who said they had relationships with dispatchers.

“Councilors were also hearing from more residents that they did support the change,” said Town Manager Dale Olmstead. “We’re always facing the challenge of using tax dollars efficiently while making sure that townspeople have the services they desire.”

A petition drive was launched to overturn the council decision but it fell short of the required number of signatures. The campaign even featured a legal complaint from a nationally recognized disability advocate who lives in Freeport, and said a petition requirement that the town clerk witness all signatures was discriminatory.

Olmstead said that the choice of Brunswick was comfortable for the council. “We had a relationship with Brunswick already, and they answer our calls [through a PSAP] at no charge.”

Several Freeport dispatchers had resigned in anticipation of the move. Two have now been hired by Brunswick. The town estimates it will save $100,000, about half its previous budget of $216,000.


Cumberland Regional Communications Center

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

POLICE SEE BENEFIT

In Falmouth, Town Manager Nathan Poore has seen both sides of the debate. When Falmouth decided to build a new police station, it made sense to look for more business that might bring in revenue – which produced the offer to Yarmouth.

But Poore also researched the possibility of joining Cumberland County. The contract with Yarmouth produced a net gain of $58,000, while the county’s offer would have saved about $105,000. But, to work with the county would have required a capital investment of $200,000, meaning that it would have taken four years to see a return.

Falmouth decided to keep running its own center, a decision strongly supported by Police Chief Tolan.

“We feel it’s important to have an integrated, 24/7 operation to serve the town,” Tolan said. “It’s not just about coverage. When an officer comes in at 2 a.m. at the end of the shift, there are lights on and someone at the station. It really does make a difference for the force.”

But Tolan can see that emergency communications has changed dramatically. “The new computers can provide a lot of information, beyond just an address. They really help us do our jobs, too.”

KENNEBEC COUNTY PRICES

In Kennebec County, regional dispatch has so far not had as positive a result as in Cumberland. Gardiner closed it dispatch center first, “and they did realize some savings,” said County Manager Bob Devlin. But by the time the county made the switch, the state’s costs had ballooned – in part because of a delayed resolution of a labor dispute – and the county realized slight savings.

The higher prices eventually led to an exodus of many small towns from the state’s Augusta center that had originally used the county for dispatch. Somerset County, which had its own PSAP and dispatch center, said it could provide service for $1 per capita annually, against $2.50 for the state.

“I’m not sure that’s really an accurate figure,” said Devlin. “They seem to be figuring the incremental costs of adding a town, rather than the full cost for running a center, which is what the state uses.”

Nevertheless, the switch of Kennebec County towns to Somerset, including some who have divided contracts for fire, police, and rescue, are part of the “rate shopping” and fragmentation of services that the Kimball report criticizes.

The state center in Augusta was criticized for its handling of certain emergency calls, including one case where a man reported wandering along a rural road was later found dead after being hit by a vehicle. A separate state report recommended increased supervision at the center.

Most municipalities that have regionalized dispatch services say they are satisfied, and wouldn’t go back to the previous arrangements. Devlin, while supporting consolidation in theory, is not sure about his county’s experience.

If Kennebec County could make its decision again, “I think we’d look at it much more carefully,” he said.

WHAT WILL 2011 BRING?

Next year’s debate at the Legislature could result in further conflict between the different emergency response agencies – or it could proceed along a different path.

“We think that partners should get together now and consider whether they would like to make new arrangements,” said Maria Jacques.

“After last time, they should know that the Legislature is serious about moving ahead” toward consolidation, she said.

In Falmouth, Manager Poore said that councilors are open to further discussions. But he added: “It only makes sense if it’s something that involves all our regional partners, not just one or two towns.”

 

ON THE WEB

Two helpful reports with background information about PSAPs and emergency-dispatch operations are available through the Maine Municipal Association website, in the section of the site labeled “Legislative Advocacy.”

You can access the reports directly at:

http://www.memun.org/public/MMA/svc/SFR/Publications/Kimball2010.pdf

http://www.memun.org/public/MMA/svc/SFR/Publications/OPEGA2010.pdf