Making sense of Androscoggin County’s 911 choices

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LEWISTON — A 911 call for help in Greene soon could be answered by a dispatcher in Skowhegan, Wiscasset or even Bangor.

In a bid to save money, Androscoggin County commissioners are contemplating closing the county’s dispatch center in Auburn, which answers emergency calls from 12 towns.

If that happens, each of the dozen towns (Lewiston-Auburn has its own call center, on Minot Avenue in Auburn) may go shopping for an agency to help. 

Town leaders and the heads of several communications centers say they are not overly worried about outsourcing the work.

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A call for help on a fight in Wales would still take only moments to be transferred to a local dispatcher who would alert Androscoggin County deputies.

But a few critics, including people from Maine’s Emergency Communications Bureau, worry that transferring calls takes time. And with each transfer is another chance for a mistake.

On Jan. 18, in written testimony to the Maine Legislature, the Public Utilities Commission spoke in favor of both roles happening at the same place.

“Reducing call transfers between Public Safety Answering Points and ‘dispatch only’ facilities improves response times and reduces the potential for human or technology errors in handling emergency calls,” wrote Paulina McCarter Collins, the PUC’s legislative liaison.

A 2010 state-commissioned study of Maine’s 911 system found that emergency calls that had to be transferred added 30 seconds on average.

Such data and safety concerns are overblown, Capt. Raymond Lafrance, who oversees Androscoggin County’s patrol and communications divisions, said. Calls move reliably between agencies, he said.

Lisbon police Chief David Brooks, who is advocating a town takeover of county dispatching, also has downplayed safety concerns.

“That’s not an argument anymore,” Brooks said Wednesday.

Brooks has approached Michael Smith, who runs the Somerset County Communications Center in Skowhegan, about answering 911 calls from Androscoggin County’s small towns.

“He asked if we were full, and I said we’d be open to discussions if it was something they would be interested in,” Smith said.

Currently, Smith’s center answers all calls in Somerset County and for 19 towns in Kennebec County. The remainder of Kennebec’s calls go to Lincoln. Similarly, the Penobscot County Regional Communications Center in Bangor answers calls through most of its county and all of Aroostook County.

Androscoggin County’s towns are free to arrange a deal with any center in Maine.

Smith said he has few worries about call transfers from his answering system in Skowhegan to dispatchers in another area. His workers are well-trained with lots of resources and call transfers can take only a few seconds.

He knows of no problems in his center, he said.

More problematic are calls that come in from cellphones.

The state and cellphone companies are in the middle of a transition that is meant to send 911 calls made on cellphones to the appropriate call center. But it’s rough at the edges.

For instance, cellular calls in most of Lewiston-Auburn go to Lewiston-Auburn 911. Mobile calls from the rest of the county are currently supposed to go to the Maine State Police barracks in Gray and then transfer to the county dispatch center.

However, lots of cellphone calls in Sabattus end up at Lewiston-Auburn 911 on Minot Avenue in Auburn, Phyllis Jensen, the center’s executive director, said. They must be transferred to the county center on Turner Street in Auburn.

More worrisome are occasional mobile calls that come in from far-flung parts of the state. In some cases, the workers find themselves doing quick Google searches to find out where the caller’s town is located, Smith said.

“It’s usually not a huge issue, but it has happened in the past,” Smith said.

Jensen worries more about the person answering the call having enough familiarity with the area they are supposed to be familiar with.

Like Brooks, she has put together a plan for dispatching help across the county. However, she also wants her center to answer the phone when someone calls for help.

“Someone outside the area isn’t going to know where Fairview School is,” Jensen said.

For her center to begin taking the calls, towns would have to overlook a big cost difference from the Lisbon answer.

Jensen’s plan would charge towns $12.73 per capita for taking on 911 call answering. By comparison, Somerset County charges Kennebec County towns $2 per capita for the service.

Leaders in many of Androscoggin County’s towns find the price too high.

“(Lewiston-Auburn 911’s) scale is just not affordable for us,” Mechanic Falls Town Manager John Hawley said. For Lewiston-Auburn 911 to answer his town’s calls would cost more than $33,000 per year. At Somerset’s $2 a person, the cost would be a little over $6,000.

Smith, from Somerset, said his county isn’t trying to pass on all of his center’s costs in its current agreement with Kennebec.

“We’re not funding huge portions of our internal budget out of that,” he said.

Jensen’s plan divided all of her costs by the total number of Androscoggin County residents — 107,996 — and came up with her per capita number. To her, it seemed the fairest way, she said.

“If we all own the car, we need to do more than pay for the gas,” she said.

The three-member Androscoggin County Commission is expected to decide the fate of the county dispatch center in the coming weeks. 

dhartill@sunjournal.com

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