LA 911 could expand to cover Androscoggin County, dispatch chief says

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AUBURN — If Androscoggin County wants to create an emergency dispatching hub — one place to answer 911 calls and send help — it can be done. But it must be done soon, an official said.

“I’m not going to put a hard and fast deadline on it,” said Phyllis Gamache-Jensen, executive director of Lewiston-Auburn 911. But it must happen sooner, rather than later. “The end of the year is probably too late.”

The reason is a state-mandated update of dispatching technology that will be rolled out over the next 20 months. The center will need more than six months to make that transition.

Becoming a countywide institution would be an even larger transition.

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“We couldn’t do them at the same time,” Gamache-Jensen told the Androscoggin County Commission on Wednesday.

The three-member commission met with Gamache-Jensen at her communications center beneath Auburn’s central fire station on Minot Avenue. It was the second in a three-stop tour the commission is making before taking another shot at solving the decade-old county dispatching debate.

Last week, the commission met with Sheriff Guy Desjardins and Patrol Capt. Raymond Lafrance, who oversees the county’s dispatch center. Next Wednesday, the commission is scheduled to tour the Lisbon dispatch center.

By this spring, the commission hopes to settle on a plan. Until then, it’s unknown whether the county will even have an operating dispatch center after 2012.

The Lewiston-Auburn center is a striking contrast to the narrow county center, with its aging equipment and low-tech feel. For years, the hold music at the center has been jury-rigged through an old portable radio with a coat hanger for an antenna.

The cities’ center more closely resembles the combat information center on a U.S. Navy destroyer. Dispatchers sit at wide desks, each flanked by two rows of four computer screens. The screens overflow with information, including criminal histories, medical direction, digital maps and lists of local police officers and their locations.

“These people have to be doing three and four things at a time,” Gamache-Jensen said of the dispatchers. At six similar-looking stations, dispatchers wearing headsets answered phone calls and radioed public safety personnel, sometimes switching between the two with a floor-pedal toggle switch.

And the busy job is getting busier.

Since last July, the center has begun getting 911 calls from cellphones. Those calls had been going first to the Maine State Police in Gray. It has boosted call volume into the center at a rate of 15,000 per year.

Despite the increases, Gamache-Jensen told commissioners that the center could absorb the county’s work. It would, however, have to add three more round-the-clock workstations and about a dozen more dispatchers to run them.

Currently, the county has eight full-time dispatching positions. All could be absorbed at Lewiston-Auburn 911, but they would have to undergo additional training before making the move.

The cost of all of this is uncertain.

Gamache-Jensen ran numbers based on several assumptions, including a full Lewiston-Auburn 911 takeover of the county’s current role and the closure of Lisbon’s dispatch center.

The biggest costs would be for personnel, who average about $55,000 per year in salary and benefits. Gamache-Jensen figured the three new workstations would need the equivalent of 4.3 people to stay staffed all the time.

People in Lewiston-Auburn, who have been funding their own center, would see a drop in their costs. In Lewiston, the dispatching cost could drop from about $1,120,098 to $1,019,097 within four years. Smaller towns such as Turner would see a hike. The town paid $32,197 in 2011 for its portion of county dispatching. In Gamache-Jensen’s estimate, Turner’s costs would surge to $100,342 within four years.

Leaders in the cities, including former commissioner and Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte, have argued that the cities have been paying twice for dispatching: once in their center and again at the county’s.

dhartill@sunjournal.com

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