PSAPs and Dispatching: Consolidation continues to be controversial

(from Maine Townsman, November 2006)
By Douglas Rooks, Freelance Writer

For Brian Rines, the long-time mayor of Gardiner who recently stepped down, the need for a new emergency call system in Maine was crystallized in a horrendous incident nearly 10 years ago. A drunken motorist drove along the Maine Turnpike at high speeds before finally crashing into a tollbooth and killing a bystander.

"He traveled through nine different dispatch territories, and they could never coordinate a response fast enough to stop him," Rines recalls. "That was early in the King administration, but we haven't done anything effective about it until recently."

Change has come on several fronts. One was a new commitment to centralizing call answering and dispatch services from two appointees of Gov. John Baldacci: Michael Cantara, the commissioner of Public Safety, and Craig Poulin, chief of the State Police. Under their leadership, Maine has established a state-of-the-art communications center in the new Public Safety headquarters, converted from the old Digital Equipment Corp. plant north of Augusta. The center has the capacity, potentially, to handle all emergency calls made in Maine. The state has also transferred communications functions from State Police to a new Emergency Services Bureau within Public Safety, governed by the Maine Communications System Policy Board.

The second front was a directive from the Legislature to the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to shrink the existing number of Public Service Answering Points (PSAPs) from 48 to a number between 16 and 24. That process was mostly, but not quite, completed with a September 29 order from the PUC that doesn't quite reach the goal of 24, but will probably result in a reduction to 26 or 27. Up to now, the number of PSAPs has been generally the same as the number of emergency dispatch centers, with only a handful of towns operating their own dispatching without PSAP designation. However, that number will probably grow with some (PSAP) towns now planning to continue their own dispatch operations while turning initial call-answering over to another agency.

These steps, while significant, fall short of the efficiencies that many public safety officials believe could occur in Maine. And even within the Maine municipal community, there are sharp disagreements over what goals should be set, and how they should be reached.

From 48 to 4?

Maine's fire chiefs have stepped out with a proposal far more ambitious than any before seen in Maine. In a resolution passed on October 4, 2005, the Maine Fire Chiefs Association (MFCA) called for just four regional communications centers statewide, and giving oversight to the Maine Emergency Management Agency. The chiefs believe that a much smaller number of centers receiving and dispatching calls would provide higher levels of service at less cost.

In an updated version of the position paper issued October 24 of this year, the fire chiefs are clear in their expectations: "No public safety entity should have to settle for less service than they are currently receiving. More forcefully, no one should settle for mediocre service. If the regional concept is going to work, it must be able to provide state-of-the-art services and accommodate future improvements."

Explaining the association's position, MFCA President John Woulfe, chief of the Rumford Fire Department, said that "four isn't necessarily the magic number. We just feel that, if we're going to go ahead with regionalization, we ought to stay ahead of the curve. Doing this over and over again is just not going to work."

Woulfe said that continuing improvements in technology will make E-911 response more of a science and less of an art. With GPS, cell phone tracing, and a wealth of information on locations where residents have special needs, centralized systems can be more effective than the current local ones, he said.

Brian Rines endorses that view. At the Gardiner Police Station, which recently was the first Kennebec County municipality to transfer dispatching to Public Safety headquarters in Augusta, "We used to have yellow sticky notes reminding the dispatcher that a particular resident needed oxygen and need to be checked in a power outage," he said. "Now that's all entered on the electronic screen. We don't have to depend on the dispatcher remembering."

Police service providers

Police chiefs tend to see the issues of PSAPs and dispatching quite differently. In large part that may be because emergency dispatch services are most often provided by police agency personnel, who view the prospects of consolidation with concern and even, at times, alarm.

Brunswick Police Chief Jerry Hinton, who has been in the thick of E-911 discussion and until last year was president of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association (MCPA), says that "We do see the need for change, particularly for the smaller communications systems." The police chiefs, he said, "do support the idea that the smallest systems can be combined."

But Hinton also argues forcefully that local dispatching knowledge can be essential in handling emergencies.

The PUC order of September 29 proposed a standard where those PSAPs receiving on average 10 or fewer calls a day should close. Under the order, those PSAPs – Kennebunkport, Cape Elizabeth, Yarmouth, Cumberland, Lisbon, South Berwick, Falmouth, Kittery, Kennnebunk, Bar Harbor, Freeport, York, Gardiner, Gorham, Windham, Old Orchard Beach, and Wells – will merge or shut down in the coming year. These consolidations will, in fact, represent almost all the PSAP reductions required by the PUC, which is shrinking the statewide total by about 20. And even there, an end to call answering may not mean an end to local dispatch. Yarmouth and Freeport, for instance, plan to route calls through Brunswick while keeping their local dispatchers on the job.

The job of consolidation in Cumberland County, which had 14 PSAPs and will probably keep six, was particularly complex, as it was in Kennebec County, which envisions one PSAP (Public Safety in Augusta) but hasn't gotten there yet. The PUC order gives Kennebec agencies more time, since the county and the cities of Augusta and Waterville have yet to make final decisions. Waterville may give up its PSAP but keep dispatch, and its chief, John Morris, has been vocal about what he sees as the unfairness of the financial arrangements surrounding consolidation.

A History of Resistance

In fact, there is a long history of resistance to PSAP/dispatching consolidation, which has played out on many fronts. Topsham objected to a decision by Sagadahoc County to form a single PSAP center, and twice filed bills in the Legislature to exempt it from paying county taxes to support the new center. Both failed, and Topsham finally shut down its dispatching operation and joined the county.

Bangor took a different route. It will soon be the only municipality in Penobscot County not to use the county regional communications center (PSAP) which, as proponents of consolidation point out, is actually located on the same street in Bangor. Under significant budget pressure in 2004, the Bangor City Council voted 5-3 to end local dispatching, a move that was expected to save $200,000 annually. A few weeks later, though, after protests from police, the council reversed itself and voted instead to study the issue. The study found that consolidation wouldn't save any money. The difference, in this and in similar studies in Waterville, seems to be the assumption that the city would give up direct emergency call answering but continue to keep its dispatchers on the job.

Seeing the result of the Topsham experience, Bangor officials decided to take a different route to avoid paying for the county dispatching services they'd decided not to use. They claimed that state law prohibits such charges to non-participating communities. Bangor won at the Superior Court level but lost with the Supreme Judicial Court.

The high court’s unanimous decision, handed down on March 8, 2005, reversed the Superior Court ruling that Penobscot County, having adopted a fee-for-service system of dispatch in 1999, could not properly shift to using a county tax for the same service, as it did in 2001.

While both methods are recognized in Title 30A, the Supreme Court ruled that either can be used, finding the statute “ambiguous,” not prescriptive, on this point.

Ordering and facilitating

Discussing what happened during the PUC's lengthy proceedings over E-911, Chairman Kurt Adams sometimes sounds a bit rueful. "Unlike most of the matters we review, we don't have any special expertise in this area, and had to defer to those who actually provide the service."

The PUC's proceedings, he said, were directed more at facilitating local cooperation and discussion than with mandating consolidation, even though that's what the 2004 legislation requiring reductions in PSAPs clearly envisioned.

Adams knows why the PUC got the job, which no one else seemed to want: "We have six-year terms, and we're used to writing regulations." He sees the task as worth doing, however, and points to successes in getting local agencies to move toward sharing services, particularly in York and parts of Cumberland counties.

"I'd say there has been tremendous progress in many areas," Adams said. He adds, "That's not something the PUC deserves any credit for. The public safety agencies did the work, and in the end it's their project."

Still, the process has some remaining loose ends, and no one seems entirely sure what the E-911 system will look like when the PUC order runs its course over the next year or two. Nor, at the moment, are there any reliable estimates of how much might be saved, since there is no single method of accounting for costs in current budgets.

Nowhere was the debate livelier than in York County, where the county's plan to bring more municipalities into its fold ultimately backfired.

York County had proposed a new entity called First County Communications Center ( York is Maine's oldest county, chartered in 1636) and tried aggressively to include rural communities.

The move roused fierce resistance. In a filing with the PUC, the selectmen of Alfred ( York County's shiretown) said, "We were shocked by the York County Commissioners decision to terminate the employment of York County Communication Chairman Sandy Simonds after many years in the job. The transfer of communications from its separate department status to the control of the York County Sheriff during a time of huge transition defies logic and common sense."

The selectmen charged that the First County plan was "a very, very sweet deal for the County of York," but would work against the interests of the rural communities. In case anyone missed the point, the selectmen again took aim at the idea of adding a new $2 million communications center to the new York County Jail, saying it was "a very, very, very sweet deal for the County of York."

In the end the PUC agreed, rejecting the First County plan and allowing 10 towns, including Alfred, Acton, Cornish, North Berwick and Shapleigh, to use dispatch services through the former State Police Regional Communications Center (now Public Safety) in Gray. York County will thus have three PSAPs, the others being in the Town of York, for southernmost communities, and Biddeford. As for the third, the PUC instructs Wells, Kennebunk, Sanford and York County "to determine where their calls will be answered." The county, Gray RCC, and Southern York group are expected to bid.

The York County decisions haven't pleased everyone, and there are many notes of perplexity and confusion in the PUC docket.

Barry Tibbetts, town manager of Kennebunk, refers to "guesstimates" in his assessment of the call answering proposals from various agencies.

In Wells, Town Manager Jane Duncan reports that "The Board of Selectmen was not comfortable in making this decision" – choosing an E-911 provider – "and felt forced into making this decision with inadequate information to meet this deadline." (Wells picked the Gray RCC.) Duncan's letter concludes, "This has been a lengthy and difficult process for every level of government, and its ultimate conclusion may be the increased cost and reduced effectiveness of emergency communications for many Maine communities."

Proponents of regional centers say there's no reason for that to happen. Yet the current debate may very well have been ordained by the way Maine set up its PSAPs in the first place, according to Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Police Chiefs Association.

The One and the Many

Those advocating centralization often point to New Hampshire and Rhode Island, which both operate a single PSAP and only a handful of dispatch centers – though New Hampshire is now building a second, redundant center to ensure continuity in power outages. In Maine, Schwartz said, the state solicited proposals from almost every police agency that dispatched calls, and got 70 of them before paring the number to 48. With that highly decentralized system in operation, it's little wonder that the PUC – or any other agency – would have a hard time coming up with a coherent plan for consolidation.

There is a decidedly piecemeal quality to what emerged from the PUC process. In Cumberland County, where the largest number of mergers is taking place, small communities joined in twos or threes with slightly larger neighbors. Not considered in the mix was Portland, which runs by far the biggest call operation and will maintain PSAP status. While Portland has extensive experience in E-911, its busy communications center has no apparent excess capacity, providing no obvious reason to partner with other municipalities that felt forced to, or at least encouraged to, merge.

That's why, Fire Chief Woulfe says, a more comprehensive plan should really be tried. A meeting under the auspices of the Maine Municipal Association last year between the various emergency agencies – police, fire and rescue – did not reveal enough common ground to continue, but Woulfe says the fire chiefs stand ready to try again. "Someone ought to be leading," he said, "and that leadership really out to come from within the public safety community itself."

Need vs. ownership

At the state level, Public Safety Commissioner Michael Cantara has been assigned by the administration to do what he can. In addition to the centralized Augusta PSAP/dispatch center – the first such operation to involve state, county, and municipal police agencies on a broad scale – Cantara engineered the transfer of state communications from State Police to the new communications bureau. Cantara, who is known for his patience and quiet persistence, explained how he dealt with turf issues. In most discussions, he said, public safety officials can agree that sharing services reduces costs and can increase quality. But talks often run aground over the issue of "Who gets to control the personnel?"

In his department, State Police were able to "recognize that they need the service, but they don't need to control it." As he sees it, dispatching is not a core police service, and State Police professionalism is better served "by being better detectives, crime analysts, and law enforcers."

Cantara said he recognizes that "who owns the service" is an important question, but one better dealt with by legislators, county commissioners, and municipal officials acting in concert, rather than competitively.

Yet the lessons of regionalization are not the same for everyone. In Brunswick, Jerry Hinton took his current job after serving in New Hampshire, where in 1993 the new statewide E-911 center was going into operation. He heard complaints from the center director himself, a former chief, about how ineffective the system could be, and that the question of who stayed with a caller while emergency responders were sent on their way was a large and continuing problem.

Hinton says the electronic screens used in the statewide system are small – "about the size of a post-it note" – and not available to all current dispatch centers. Police chiefs are concerned by a recent order that all dispatchers covering a shift be EMT-trained, and the lack of state guidance before a looming January 1 deadline that, potentially, could lead to hefty fines for non-complying local agencies.

John Woulfe acknowledges the frustration that police departments seem to have with the state's recent edicts, but says he's convinced that the future will require more changes, not less. "It should be our responsibility to find out what will work best in five or 10 years, and use that as the standard," he said.

Brian Rines said that for regionalization to work, people have to want it to work. In Gardiner, police weren't happy about losing a dispatcher who worked the midnight shift. People who used to come to the police station to make a report couldn't come into the office late at night, and are now supplied an outdoor phone with a connection to the Augusta communications center.

But the tradeoffs are more than worth it, he said. Along with other changes in the police department, though with dispatch the largest factor, Gardiner is saving $200,000 a year. Over the past 10 years, overall budget needs have been reduced $4.5 million, Rines said, and the property tax rate, once the highest in Kennebec County, is down 22 percent.

In the post-TABOR period, with renewed pressures to reduce the cost of government at all levels, figures like those will be compelling, Rines said.

While the recent PUC process has been bruising for some, Commissioner Cantara thinks the awareness that different agencies can work together will encourage more cooperation in the future. Despite predictions of tax increases and more phone fees, the Department of Public Safety has been able to launch a $49 million overhaul of its radio communications – serving other departments such as Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Marine Resources, Conservation and DEP – within existing resources, using bonds issued by the Government Facilities Authority. The new, more technologically sophisticated system is being built just for existing state agencies and their local partners, but it could be an attraction for others to join, he said. And the Communications Policy Board, once made up solely of Kennebec County appointees, now has representation from Aroostook County and other parts of the state.

Cantara also likes to bring the E-911 question down to a more personal level. He commutes from York County to Augusta daily, a 90-minute drive, and while he's away he likes to know that his elderly mother is in reach of emergency services at all times. Overall, he said, that probably means more highly trained dispatchers but fewer of them in more central locations. "We should all want the most professional, more expert service we can afford," he said.