PARIS — Twenty-eight years ago, county dispatch was a one-man operation.

It was in the control room at the Oxford County Jail. And while the jail control officer might help when she had time, it was pretty much up to one person to handle emergency calls and send fire, rescue or law enforcement to respond.

Today, there’s a three- or four-person team on each shift.

Steven Cordwell, 66, of Oxford remembers the “old days” well.

Growing up in Oxford Hills, Cordwell joined the Oxford Fire Department in 1977 as a volunteer and got his first-aid license. He served the then-Oxford-Otisfield Rescue, which housed its rigs in the Oxford fire barn. He later worked for the rescue service for five years as a licensed EMT and was elected chief of the squad for a few years.

“In 1982, I was working at Robinson’s woolen mill and I hurt my back and had to go out (of work),” he said. “After surgery, it took forever to heal. I couldn’t lift patients anymore so I went to (Oxford Fire Department) and dispatched from the station.” 

His father and uncle owned and operated Cordwell’s Market on Winter Street in Norway and his uncle decided to retire around this time around 1985, Cordwell said.

“I bought my uncle’s half and took over, working with my dad. After four years, we couldn’t do it anymore so we closed,” he said. “We closed on New Year’s 1989 and I came here.”

From that January through October, he worked as a part-time corrections officer and part-time dispatcher.

“I would be working at the jail and the dispatcher would need a break so I would cover,” he said.

In October, he was hired as a permanent full-time employee.

“Back then, people called a seven-digit number,” he said. “You would write (the information) on paper, go to a long radio and ‘tone out’ fire or rescue or radio law enforcement. Then you had to type it in to an activity log. Sometimes that would take a couple of hours.”

At the time, he said, they didn’t cover the northern part of the county, including Rumford and Mexico. They also had a teletype system over which they would get information from Augusta. The department was also under the sheriff at the time.

Today it’s an independent department, reporting to the county commissioners.

His first supervisor was Kathy McAllister and then he worked for Judy Knight when she took over in the mid-1990s. By 1998, Cordwell said, they had grown to two dispatchers in the crowded jail control room.

They moved into the current building in 1999.

In 2006, James Miclon came on board as director and around 2008, Cordwell believes, Emergency Medical Dispatch was added to the Spillman Technologies computer-aided dispatch system. 

“I had taken an EMD class back in 1992, when they were trying to get it in the county but we didn’t use it in our dispatch until after Jimmy came on board,” he said.

He began working nights but went to days in 1994 or 1995 and stayed.

They now have four stations and three dispatchers on during the day — a person who answers 911 calls, a fire/rescue dispatcher and a law enforcement dispatch. There are four dispatchers on from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m., which is considered the busiest time.

“We rotate (stations) every day,” he said.

What does he like best? 

“I’m not a call taker!” Cordwell said, adding it’s his least favorite task. “I like fire/rescue over law because of my fire/rescue background.”

He said he keeps a lot of information in his head (instead of on lists) and this helps him when a responder might not key the mic in time to catch his first words, which often includes the name of the town to which he is responding. So it helps to recognize voices or equipment numbers, he said.

Calls

One of his worst calls happened recently, he said. It was the police boat crash on the Saco River in Fryeburg, which ultimately cost 20-year-old Fryeburg police officer Nathan Desjardins his life.

“I was on law desk that day and Candy was (the) call taker,” he said. “She’s still struggling with it.”

He has had a few “best” calls, but he brushes them off.

“You get an award but you don’t do much (for it),” he said.

He took a Buckfield call in which “a young child around 6 or 7 called 911 for his father who was unconscious.”

“All I did was keep the child calm and get directions,” he said.

He was awarded a certificate for his efforts. 

I didn’t do that much,” he said.

The child and his father were present when he received his certificate, he said.

“That’s a good thing,” he said. 

He also has “delivered” one baby, he said.

“They tell me I have one (delivery) but I don’t think I did much there,” he said. “I just told the husband to get his wife off the toilet.”

Retirement

He’s not sure what he will do in retirement, Cordwell said.

“I’m not much of a hobbyist,” he said. “My wife says I sit in front of the computer too much. She says I’m going to exercise more.”

Cordwell, who is the fire prevention and safety officer for Oxford Fire Department, said he will do more work around the yard, and maybe go on more Oxford Fire Department calls or fill in on dispatch. 

“We might try some day trips,” he mused, “and (I’ll) go out to eat with my wife, spend time with my grandson.”

He has a son locally and a daughter in Boston, he said.

Cordwell said he’s glad he chose dispatching for a career.

“There’s a lot to it … some good, some bad,” he said. “I think working with the Fire Department prepares you for what you hear dispatching.”

Years ago, Cordwell said, dispatchers would burn out in seven or eight years. 

“Now some make it 20 years, but eventually it comes to an end,” he said. “I’ve reached my Social Security max years, so we’ll see.”

Miclon calls Cordwell “outstanding to work with and supervise over the years.”

Dispatcher Candice Jack added, “He’s like a grampa, loving and kind and always there for us.”

“He is a good mentor to many of the staff,” Miclon said. “He is going to be really missed. Any time he wants to come back part time, I would take him back in a minute.”

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Steve

Steve Cordwell of Oxford recently retired after 28 years as a dispatcher at the Oxford County Regional Communications Center in Paris.

Steve Cordwell of Oxford recently retired after 28 years as a dispatcher at the Oxford County Regional Communications Center in Paris.

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