FARMINGTON — Despite a new dispatch center, much work remains to be done as far as improving communications with emergency agencies in Franklin County, said Franklin County Communications Director Stan Wheeler at last week’s Farmington Rotary meeting.

“As I’m sure you know, the challenge in Franklin County, like a lot of the other counties in Maine, is the terrain,” he said.

Wheeler mentioned that Next Generation 9-1-1 didn’t occur until early 2014, after the new dispatch building was constructed next to the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department.

“We sat there with an empty building for a year. It was incredibly frustrating,” he said.

The dispatchers moved into their new facility on April 24, 2014. They had to move all radio and communications equipment from the jail, where they had been housed, to the new building. That was quite a task in and of itself, but, said Wheeler, the radio system used to communicate needs to be upgraded.

Over the last few decades, as radio needs grew in the Sheriff’s Department, the dispatchers took on additional duties “and we built this hodge-podge system,” said Wheeler. “There are places in Franklin County where we can’t hear a deputy where he/she is trying to talk to us, or we can’t hear the fire department.”

Wheeler and Franklin County Commissioners have been working to come up with a solution. They talked to a consultant about the cost for a basic communications system, “without bells and whistles”, said Wheeler, and the estimated price was $488,000.

The cost will need to be paid over several years and the project done in different phases, he said. In the first phase of the project, $73,200 will need to be raised from Franklin County taxpayers. Some of the project funds will come from Department of Homeland Security grant funds, and funds from the county’s Tax Increment Financing deal with the Kibby wind project.

“The problem is, there’s so many different parts of it,” said Wheeler. “It’s like a big puzzle.”

The county is trying to move communications equipment from one tower on Mosher Hill in Farmington to another, higher tower already located there. As part of the communications project, Radio Over Internet Protocol (ROIP) will be established with boxes in Strong, Phillips, Weld and other places where there’s been historically bad radio communications, said Wheeler.

“It gives us a much more stable structure,” he said. “One of the things we’re looking at in the dispatch center itself is a new radio console.”

They are investigating a lease arrangement where it can be financed, he said. The cost is estimated at $100,000-$120,000.

Wheeler said that ROIP is very clear. It will be a private Internet service with a single level agreement. Wheeler explained that this means that if, for example, a car takes out a telephone pole and the ROIP is disrupted, the provider is contractually obligated to restore service immediately.

One of the differences between the way the Franklin County Communications Center looks now and the way it operated in the past is it is a separate department from the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department. The two now have separate budgets and separate department heads.

Wheeler urged the gathering that if they experience an emergency and have the choice between using a landline and a cell phone to use a landline. He said that if a call comes into dispatch from a landline, a person’s name and address appear on the computer screen, giving dispatchers a way of directing emergency vehicles. With a cell phone, it depends on where you are located and how strong the signal is.

“A landline gives much more accurate information,” said Wheeler.

He noted that there were more than 9,000 9-1-1 calls to Franklin County dispatchers last year. “They are increasing,” he said.

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