AUBURN — New criticism of Androscoggin County's aging dispatching system has ignited fresh calls for modern radio equipment and less politics.
"We've got to repair it or get out of the business," Sheriff Guy Desjardins said Friday.
A growing pile of reports detail radio problems across the county, he said. And Maine Radio, a Scarborough company that has installed dispatching systems statewide, issued a report this week that suggested that deputies could be unsafe if the system is not revamped.
"Because of the age of the equipment, ongoing, and consistent intermittent problems, the console system should be replaced as it could be an officer safety issue," Maine Radio said this week in a letter to Desjardins.
"I've got to respond to this," the sheriff said.
Calls for new equipment have persisted for at least five years, nearly as long as leaders have weighed the politics of who would answer the county's emergency calls.
That question has yet to be resolved. In June, the county's Budget Committee defeated a proposal to spend about $380,000 for upgrades until they saw more documentation behind commissioners' decision to maintain dispatching within the county.
"I'm basically just getting off that bandwagon," Desjardins said. Whatever choice is decided upon by commissioners and the Budget Committee, fixes must be made, he said.
"I know I can't stay status quo," he said.
Randall Greenwood, chairman of the County Commission, agrees that changes must come soon.
"We have to do our due diligence to make sure our officers are safe," he said.
One of the problems seems to be dead spots across the county, from which patrol deputies are unable to talk with each other or with dispatching in Auburn.
Since mid-June, the department has been collecting reports from personnel detailing when and where the dead spots are occurring. And the spots seem to wander.
Desjardins, himself, experienced radio problems Friday on his way to work from Sabattus. For a while, he was hearing only every other word.
"I'll be submitting a report today," he said.
In May, a deputy was making an arrest in Poland when he used his hip radio to call for help. Dispatchers never heard the call. Instead, a local firefighter heard the deputy and called the dispatch office. Each deputy also carries a department-issued cellphone, but those can be unreliable also.
Making matters worse is a radio console that dates back to the 1980s. It does a poor job of coordinating between different radio signals, particularly the three radio towers used by the county, a main tower on Goff Hill in Auburn and repeaters in Poland and Leeds. Each cruiser has a 100-watt car radio and every deputy carries a personal, five-watt radio.
As they patrol the county, the deputies must switch between transmission towers or risk missing calls.
It was highlighted in the Maine Radio report.
"The problem that you have with this type of system is the dispatcher knowing which site to call the officer on as they are always moving throughout the county," cited the radio company.
A new system would coordinate the transmissions automatically.
"Twenty or 25 years ago when the system was put in, it was top notch," Greenwood said. "It had every bell and whistle. It did everything it was supposed to do. But technology has changed dramatically in the last 25 years, and even more so in the last 10."
Currently Maine Radio is working on a bid for replacing the system, Greenwood said.
The system will need to be upgraded, even if the Sheriff's Department merges its dispatching with another agency, the commissioner said. And it's portable.
"If we don't consolidate and things stay the same, we need the equipment," Greenwood said. "If we do consolidate with Lewiston-Auburn 911 or Lisbon, we still need the equipment."