(from Maine Townsman, October 2008)
By Douglas Rooks, Freelance Writer
The merging of E911 and emergency dispatch functions may not have prompted as many headlines as school district consolidation, but it remains a huge issue for municipal officials, with changes still occurring in all parts of the state.
The current round of consolidation of PSAPs – public safety answering points — was prompted by legislation passed in 2003. It required the Public Utilities Commission to reduce PSAPs from the 47 that then existed to between 16 and 24.
After an arduous two-year process that concluded at the end of 2007, PSAPS had been cut to 26, falling slightly short of the legislative directive – and even that result came only after considerable pulling and tugging. The PUC’s final decision in the case was to allow Waterville to have its emergency calls answered by Somerset County, just to the north, a move also adopted by five other northern Kennebec County towns. Kennebec County has abandoned its PSAP as part of a move of its dispatching services to the new state emergency call center in Augusta.
Remaining PSAPs include the four state communications centers operated by the State Department of Public Safety. Thirteen counties operate PSAPS – all but Kennebec, Aroostook and York – and nine municipalities do as well. Except for Bangor, all the remaining municipal PSAPs are in York and Cumberland counties, where the bulk of the state’s population and its largest municipal police departments are.
Despite often contentious debate, the recent PSAP consolidation has also prompted plans for regional dispatching operations. Maine still has at least several dozen more dispatching centers than PSAPs. For instance, while Kennebec and York counties have left the dispatching business altogether, Aroostook County continues to dispatch calls while using a state-run PSAP (see sidebar).
The differing solutions adopted in different parts of Maine, involving varied and sometimes shifting alliances of state, county and municipal agencies, suggest that the ultimate shape of emergency communications is still in flux. In one sense, Maine has still not resolved whether call answering and dispatch is a primarily local function, conducted as part of the normal functions of the separate public safety agencies, or if it should regionalized or even centralized, with specifically-trained personnel dedicated only to that function.
Making decisions even more complex is that the main agencies providing 911 service – police, fire and rescue – often have different needs, and even different forms of dispatcher certification. The Maine Fire Chiefs Association, for instance, has called for just four PSAPs statewide, arguing that this would provide better service while cutting costs. Police chiefs, on the other hand, whose departments generally run dispatch centers, would prefer far more PSAPs, and some of them criticized the PUC mandate to merge existing PSAPs.
The following report chronicles recent changes in both PSAP and dispatch services, and includes suggestions about what the future may hold, as a 20-year discussion shows no sign of concluding.
Shape of the Debate
Al Gervenack, who runs the Maine Emergency Service Communications Bureau, said that “the mechanics and the electronics work. What we’re seeing now is a discussion about local control at the county and municipal level.” (This PUC bureau should not be confused with the Consolidated Emergency Communication Bureau within the Department of Safety, which runs the state’s PSAPs and dispatch operations.)
It would be possible for all call answering and dispatch to be centralized, he said, and he noted that “There’s been a move toward consolidation nationally, a resurgence at the state level. That’s why we’re having this debate.”
Gervenack said Maine doesn’t have the physical locations at the moment to carry out the Fire Chief’s idea, but said it would be possible.
“The savings you can generate through consolidation drives the process,” he said. “Some states have provided incentives, while Maine has just said ‘do it.’ ” That may have increased resistance, he said. A lot, he added, “depends on the level of acceptance there is. If you think you can make it work, you’ll find a way to make it happen.”
Sonia Moeller sees both sides of the issue. As president of the Maine chapter of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), she’s up on all the latest technology that improves both speed of communication and breath of information in responding to emergencies. During the recent air show at the Brunswick Naval Air Station, her console could pinpoint the location of emergency vehicles on each runway in real time. Emergency responders can now receive far more detailed accounts of an accident scene even if no one is on the phone to report them.
On the other hand, as a supervisor in the Brunswick dispatch department, Moeller sees the value of an integrated local operation. ‘It was very important for [former Police] Chief Jerry Hinton that Brunswick keep its PSAP and provide services for all departments,” she said.
Since the PUC process concluded, Brunswick has assumed PSAP call answering duties for Freeport and Yarmouth, which continue to dispatch calls. The process works fairly well, she said, though there is a few second delay as another dispatcher comes on the line.
The trickier moments come when the calls require EMTs to respond. “Those departments aren’t EMT-certified,” she said, “so we have to stay on the line to assist. Sometimes callers find it difficult when there are two people speaking to them in an emergency situation.”
Still, she’s uncomfortable that some towns and cities were required to give up call answering to meet the state mandate. “I always think it’s better when people have a choice,” she said. “I may be old-fashioned that way.”
One police chief who definitely thinks the old way was better is Edward Tolan in Falmouth, who’s had the job since 1995. Falmouth saw its PSAP eliminated through the PUC process, and Tolan wasn’t happy about it.
Falmouth now has calls answered by Westbrook, and Tolan emphasized that “we have no problem with Westbrook. They’ve provided excellent service for us.” But he regrets the loss of the town’s considerable investment in communications equipment – more than $40,000 in one recent year – to upgrade its PSAP shortly before it was eliminated.
Tolan doesn’t see any cost savings yet from the regional PSAP or on the dispatch side. Along with Yarmouth, Cumberland and Freeport, Falmouth considered a regional dispatch center a few years ago, but “it never got beyond the discussion stage,” he said. “The council didn’t pursue it.”
Falmouth has just built a new, green-certified police station that includes three fully wired dispatch stations in case other towns might want to use the service. “We’re ready to go with our upgraded computer screens, just in case,” he said. Considering the turnover in dispatch contracts around the state, there might be customers soon.
In neighboring Yarmouth, the town has pursued different directions during the last year alone. The town council, concerned about rising costs, decided to contract with Cumberland County for both PSAP and dispatch services. Cumberland County, which built a large new communications center in Windham, has been recruiting new customers and has signed up several municipalities for PSAP and dispatch services.
“It provided a big savings for us, and the council took note of that,” said Yarmouth Town Manager Nat Tupper. Depending on how it was figured, the town could have saved $200,000 to $350,000 by terminating local dispatch services. Also prompting action was the decision by Cumberland to terminate its dispatch contract with Yarmouth and switch to Cumberland County.
Following a 4-2 council vote to end local dispatch, a petition drive led by some of the dispatchers succeeded in forcing a referendum vote. On June 10, voters decided to preserve local dispatch by 1,110-1,005 tally, with 52 percent in favor.
Afterwards, the council faced a decision on how much dispatch service to restore. Tupper said that, without Cumberland, the town could have used five full-time dispatchers, which would have increased spending by $200,000. Instead, the council voted to make a full restoration to seven full-time and two part-time dispatchers, which cost $350,000. Tupper holds out hope that Freeport may eventually become a customer, which would more than replace the business lost from Cumberland. But Freeport has yet to make up its mind, even though Town Manager Dale Olmstead has told councilors it could save $100,000, which he called “a low number.”
And despite the referendum vote, Tupper thinks Yarmouth will eventually revisit the dispatch question to see if the local operation still makes sense.
“You have to replace the other services you provide, no doubt,” he said. The town provides a wake-up program for elderly citizens living alone, for example. “If we don’t get an answer, we go to investigate. We couldn’t get that from the county.” But local volunteers, including a local grocery store, were willing to make the calls, he added.
Sooner or later, Tupper said, the cost of the service at a time municipal budgets are being squeezed will prompt reconsideration. “When the council began discussing this, there were several members who didn’t want to change, but voted in the end to do it.” He still believes that “There’s a sense of inevitability about it.”
A Regional Solution?
In Androscoggin County, the need for a $400,000 communications equipment upgrade at the sheriff’s office has prompted a lengthy study of possible changes. The county now has two PSAPs – the sheriff’s office and a joint Lewiston-Auburn communications center, and a study committee produced a 40-page report detailing options, though it has yet to submit formal recommendations.
Lewiston City Administrator Jim Bennett, who co-chaired the committee, said that sharing costs has been a complicated task. Along with Lisbon and Livermore Falls, the county’s four largest municipalities contribute 72 percent of county tax revenues, so they have an incentive to provide a regional PSAP – something the PUC would have preferred as well. “We have it in mind that they may still require us to do that some day,” Bennett said.
But various versions of a formula allocating costs by population and numbers of calls have been difficult to agree on, much as valuation and per-student factors sometimes bedevil regional school unit discussions. “So far we haven’t come up with a consensus that will allow us to move forward,” he said.
Or as the report concludes, “It should not be surprising that finding a solution that is financially acceptable to all is a lofty goal with the possibility of being unobtainable.”
Bennett sees other issues needing to be discussed before further consolidation takes place. Lewiston-Auburn, for instance, is the only dispatch center in the state to be nationally certified. “We’d certainly like to maintain that level of service,” he said.
Two County Closings
York County ultimately resolved a dilemma over its PSAP by going out of business. After proposing a separate First County call center, the county commissioners saw some of their towns defect to the state center in Gray, and decided to give up.
Most of the county calls now go to Sanford, while a few towns now use York. Sanford Town Manager Mark Green said that the transfer, in August, went “almost seamlessly.” Sanford expects to add another five or six dispatchers to the 10 it already employs, which Green said should increase both professionalism and training opportunities. His impression of the York County decision is that “it was a tough budget year, and this was one way to deal with it.”
Revenue from the additional volume should provide a modest net gain for the town budget, between $25,000-$75,000, though he added that some equipment upgrades may also be required.
York was the only one of 17 PSAPs identified by the PUC as fielding 10 or fewer emergency calls a day to survive the consolidation process, though with additional towns as customers, it may now exceed that threshold.
Kennebec County decided to join the state communications center in Augusta, although unlike York, the move had long been discussed. Legislation creating the Augusta center in 2003 – which was moved from the old State Police headquarters on Hospital Street to the former Digital Equipment plant – envisioned broad participation by municipal, county and state government. Among the agencies involved in discussions was Kennebec County, Augusta, Gardiner, Winthrop and Waterville, all with their own dispatch centers and, originally, their own PSAPs. All except Waterville now use the state as the regional PSAP, but only Gardiner and the county have transferred dispatch services.
Waterville Police Chief John Morris was so strongly opposed to participation that local legislators offered a bill, which was defeated, that would have created as 27 th PSAP for Waterville. Instead, Waterville got permission for what it sees as lower-cost service from Somerset County.
In Winthrop, Town Manager Cornell Knight described some of the complexities of how dispatch contracts overlap. Winthrop’s police department runs the center and dispatches its own calls, but also covers a five-town regional ambulance service and three more fire departments, two of them in Androscoggin County. The overall service area has about 16,000 people.
Knight said that going with the regional communications center in Augusta was projected to save $80,000, but that wasn’t enough to interest the town council, given the number of ancillary services that would have to be replace, including dispatch for the highway department. Now, he said, local dispatchers can monitor discussions among firefighters responding to a blaze for several hours at a time. “They weren’t going to provide that kind of service” at the regional center, he said.
Sonia Moeller is among those who values the local knowledge and experience dispatchers develop over time. “There’s a lot involved in knowing the people you’re working with who are part of a team,” she said. “You can tell by a tone of voice how an individual responder is doing. That’s not something you get if you end up with a regional center.” She said about the remaining PSAPs, “I hope they aren’t going to shut down any more.”
Different states set up their communications centers differently, she points out. New Hampshire and Rhode Island centralized all its PSAPs, yet maintain some local dispatch centers. Massachusetts, by contrast, combines most of its PSAPs and dispatching operations.
Maine originally had planned for 92 PSAPs, which was would have allowed for a combined PSAP/dispatch operation in most of the dispatch centers that existed at that time.
Cliff Wells, who heads the Department of Safety bureau that operates the four state centers, is skeptical of the local knowledge argument. Wells, who once headed the Penobscot County communications center, said that professionalism, training, and the ability to perform well in a crisis is far more important. “Local knowledge is learnable, it’s obtainable,” he said. He pointed out that one of his best dispatchers in Penobscot came from Washington County. “With good training, where you’re from shouldn’t matter.”
Shape of the Future
Where PSAPs and dispatch centers will be in another five to 10 years is a question that is very much in the minds of municipal officials. There are those, like Nat Tupper in Yarmouth, who think that the additional costs of maintaining local service will lead to more closings, as LD 1 spending caps and taxpayer concerns force the issue.
Another factor, whose effect is still unclear, is what happens when the state renews its 911 contract with Fairpoint Communications, the successor to Verizon which has had an initially rough time maintaining emergency calls lines in several parts of Maine and Vermont. The state pays to maintain the overall network, and pays more because of the need to maintain multiple PSAPs.
Several local officials interviewed say that members of the Legislature’s Utilities and Energy Committee, which initiated the PUC consolidation, are already discussing another possible round. But the Fairpoint contract deadline isn’t any time soon – it runs through October 2011, and Al Gervenack said he doubts the next Legislature will take up the issue.
But since legislation initiated consolidation, it may well continue on that course. Cliff Wells said “the Legislature is ultimately going to dictate the direction we take. That’s when we’ll know what will happen.”
SIDEBAR: PSAPs and Dispatch Centers
While emergency call-answering and dispatching are closely related services, they are separate functions that can be offered in different ways.
A Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) is the place where 911 calls go to first. After they are answered at the PSAP, they can be dispatched from the same location or transferred to a municipal or county dispatch center. In Maine, all PSAPs are used for call dispatching, but not every dispatch center remains connected to the PSAP that first answered the call. At times, two dispatchers (at the PSAP and at the separate dispatch center) may be on the same call, depending on the level of certification needed to handle the emergency.
Other states set up their communications centers differently. New Hampshire centralized all its PSAPs and all calls are answered in Concord, though a second, redundant, PSAP was added after a power failure took down the network. Actual dispatching of calls takes place in more than a dozen centers around the state, however. Rhode Island has a similar system.
In Massachusetts, by contrast, there are 270 PSAPs with most towns answering their own calls and also dispatching them. This more nearly resembles Maine’s original system, which had a nearly one-to-one relationship between PSAPs and the number of dispatching operations in existence at the time.
Maine originally planned for 92 PSAPs. That number was gradually cut in half through voluntary agreements, to 47. The recent PUC proceeding cut the number of PSAPs nearly in half again, to 26.
SIDEBAR: E 911 in ‘The County’
In Aroostook County, there have been no recent controversies about emergency call answering and dispatch services – in large part because the county and its municipalities signed an agreement with the state for PSAP service before the mandated consolidation process began.
Presque Isle City Manager Tom Steven and County Manager Doug Beaulieu recently talked about the advantages of their E911 system, and about the improvements in service they’ve seen over the last two decades, since the first state bond issue on the subject was passed, in 1988.
“I haven’t had to think much about it in awhile,” Stevens said when asked about PSAP service for the county’s largest municipality. “The system has worked well from the beginning.”
In 2002, Aroostook County and municipalities that dispatch emergency calls there signed a contract with State Police, who then oversaw the state’s emergency call system, to answer all calls at the State Police center in Houlton, now one of four such centers. The contract signing followed meetings of the Aroostook County Municipal Association, convened by former county manager Danny Martin, now commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
“We operated by consensus,” Stevens recalled. “We looked at various possibilities, and State Police was clearly the best.” As a result, Aroostook became the first Maine county not to operate its own PSAP.
The deal has been a good one for the county, Beaulieu said. “When we started, we got a year’s service for $180,000.” Over six years, the cost has increased only to $189,000, which he considers quite moderate. The only cloud on the horizon, he said, is the current PUC rate case that could significantly increase charges for the state E911 center. “If that happens, we might have to look at other alternatives, and possible have another county answering calls,” he said. (see article on page 21)
In addition to swift and reliable service in call answering, Stevens said there have been other benefits from the long process in creating the E911 system. Creating rural addresses was a big job, carried out diligently, he said.
Although designed primarily to aid emergency service providers, having addresses throughout rural Maine has had other benefits. Mail and package delivery has improved, since it’s easier to find people. Stevens said he even has an address at his camp in a nearby unorganized township.
Four municipalities, generally those with full-time police departments, still dispatch calls along with the county, Stevens said. In Presque Isle’s case, he thinks dispatch will remain a municipal function. The city’s holding cells function as a de facto jail for the northern part of the county, and operate on a 24-hour basis, much like dispatch. Presque Isle now uses more uniformed officers to cover the late shift, since they must also be present for jail transfers, but cannot perform patrol duties at the same time.
“Every situation is different, but this was has worked well for us,” he said.