Franklin Countys First News

Emergency communications in Franklin County: What’s next?


Under a dramatic sky, the view looking north to Mt. Abram and Sugarloaf from Allen's Pinnacle in Freeman. The area the local communications center covers is big, more than 1,600 square miles according to Sheriff Dennis Pike, and while the local personnel know the twists and turns of hundreds of miles of public and private roads, trails and rivers, a PSAP employee in Augusta could hardly be expected to memorize them all.  (Photo by Steve Mitman) 

FARMINGTON - It is a case of impressive technology, good working knowledge of the area and, like most emergency service dispatch stories, timing.

A woman and her daughter were in Chesterville, well away from roads and residences, when their ATV became stuck. After trying for several minutes to free the machine, they left it behind and began walking, hoping to find help. Eventually, they became totally lost.

Luckily, the woman had her cellphone, so she called 911. In a few moments she was talking with dispatcher Stan Wheeler at the Sheriff's Office in Farmington. Her phone, like most new phones, was equipped with GPS tracking capability and Wheeler was able to pull up a map with her exact position. He was eventually able to guide the woman and her daughter to a road, and safety.

"If we lose the mapping capability," he warned a group of legislators, selectmen, town managers, police and fire chiefs at a meeting Monday morning, "these kinds of things, they'll be gone."

So why would Franklin County lose the capability? The answer lies amid an ongoing debate over PSAPs, communication centers versus dispatch, call volume figures, consolidation and the crossroads of public safety and fiscal savings.

PSAP stands for Public Safety Answering Point, and it represents the first point of contact for most people who dial 911. There are 26 PSAPs in the state of Maine but, following the directive of the state Legislature, the Maine Public Utilities Commission is considering reducing that number. The PUC is using a report, commissioned by the state and prepared by the L.R. Kimball consulting group, which recommends that the state operate 15 to 17 PSAPs, instead of 26.

Franklin County's communications hub operates out of a small sheriff's office near the county's detention center, known locally as the "white house." Inside, shifts of dispatchers operate both the PSAP and the dispatch services for the entire county, except for the Carrabassett Valley/Sugarloaf area, which has its own facility. They primarily direct three emergency service providers; public safety personnel, firefighters and NorthStar EMS ambulances, but they also provide assistance for state and federal agencies operating in the area, as well as the Franklin County Emergency Management Agency.

The PSAP equipment, accessed through a pair of computers, is what shows the dispatchers information about the incoming call and the all-important map.

Not every facility in Maine that provides coordination for emergency services has a PSAP. Many are just dispatches, meaning they take calls from a PSAP or other agency and inform police, fire and/or ambulance services. The inclusion of the ability to take calls, as well as send alerts, is what separates a communications center from a dispatch.

Franklin County emergency service officials want to maintain the white house as a communications center, which means keeping the PSAP local. Should the PSAP be cut, Franklin County would need to contract to an existing point, which would be outside the county.

This is what worries Franklin County officials. The process in which calls are transferred from PSAP to dispatchers adds an average of 30 seconds to the call, according to the Kimball Report.

"Further reduction in the number of PSAPs," the report reads, "would require more 9-1-1 calls transfers. These transfers inherently add to response times and impact service."

Thirty seconds, both local officials and the report concludes, can literally be a matter of life and death in many emergencies. Additionally, more transfers increase the possibility that something goes wrong. Requests for help can get routed to the wrong dispatch center, details can be misconstrued or misheard, or, perhaps worst of all, calls can be dropped entirely.

However, even if the transfer of information is seamless, officials are even more concerned about the possibility of PSAP personnel who are relatively unfamiliar with Franklin County directing services, through the local dispatch center. The area the local communications center covers is big, more than 1,600 square miles according to Sheriff Dennis Pike, and while the local personnel know the twists and turns of hundreds of miles of public and private roads, trails and rivers, a PSAP employee in Augusta could hardly be expected to memorize them all. Access to mapping programs and the ability to coordinate with the local center won't render a distant PSAP blind, of course, but instant, accurate information that emergency service providers have taken for granted may be less so in the future.

"I believe we could survive without this," Pike said, of the possibility of closing the local PSAP, "but I do not believe we would have the success rate we have had."

Wilton Police Chief Dennis Brown understands the difference between utilizing a communications center as opposed to a dispatch center. In Vermont, he said Monday, his department "routinely" was dispatched to incorrect locations or was asked to respond to locations outside their typical jurisdiction. Mistakes were simply being made by the operators of the distant PSAP, who weren't intrinsically familiar with the local area.

Rangeley Town Manager Perry Ellsworth, whose local fire and rescue services are contracted to respond to a 500 square-mile zone, is against the consolidation plan. He noted that Rangeley's population swells to 20,000 during select weekends and events, and that many of the visitors are their to hike, ski, bike, snowmobile or otherwise explore extremely rural portions of the county. He believes the potential ramifications of a consolidation of PSAPs hasn't been adequately thought out.

"This is probably the most critical thing that's happened here in a long time," he said.

Unfortunately, for the county, the local PSAP may be near the front of the line to the chopping block. The local center reported 9,388 calls in 2009, one of the lowest call volumes in the state. Emergency service providers dispute that number, saying each incident can require the coordination of multiple departments. They also point to Pike's 1,600 square miles, saying that more than call volume needs to be considered. However, those who had spoken to representatives from the state said that call volume will likely be given considerable weight in the PUC's decision.

The Kimball Report calculated that the 911 response system would cost a total of $74.5 million to operate for five years, if the number of PSAPs was reduced from 26 to 16. That is, for the state, a significant savings from the estimated 911 system budget of $85.8 million with all 26 stations. Locally, however, there may not be significant savings. Franklin County would still need to operate a dispatch center, which would mean contracting to another PSAP. While this would result in modest savings in equipment maintenance, it creates other issues. In York, Kennebec and Aroostook counties, community and county dispatch centers have engaged in rate shopping, where the centers switch from PSAP to PSAP in a search for better services or prices. This uncertainty and constant change has led to a recommendation by the Kimball Report to limit shifts from point to point to once every five years.

The meeting Monday was designed to develop a strategy in which to alert the PUC to local concerns about a possible closure. Rep. Tom Saviello (R - Wilton) said that examples of dropped calls and stories like Stan Wheeler's would be more effective than blanket statements.

"We can't have letters that say 'don't close us - we're nice guys,'" Saviello said. "That won't go far."

Local officials are hoping to alert the public to the issue in a short amount of time; the deadline for public comment is July 12. Comments can be submitted electronically at www.maine.gov/mpuc and going through the electronic filing process, or mailed to Administrative Director, Maine Public Utilities Commission, 18 SHS, Augusta, ME, 04333.

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9 Responses »

  1. This is where real common sense and good government come up against petty greed. At Wilton's town meeting, over and over, I heard people moan about their money being spent for things like street lighting, road maintenance and police protection. Perhaps a few weeks in the libertarian paradise of Somalia would change their minds. Then again, perhaps not. To some a ten dollar bill is more important than quality of life.

  2. Nice reporting, Ben. A complicated subject made understandable and with many strong local angles. One of your best. Thanks for this.

  3. The State of Maine hits Franklin County again. Its time to say enough is enough. First the State and County's gov. agree closing the Jail and making it a 72 hour holding was the thing to do. It is not working and with Somerset Co. Sheriff standing up for his county possible closing a ward where are our inmates going to go and what amount of money are we going to spend sending them elsewhere or to revamp our jail which was fine but the state took the cots ect out. Now they want to close our Dispatch and cost Franklin county more and poss. more jobs lost. I agree whats next. Last by closing the Jail a year ago losing somewhere like 14 +/- jobs why is our buget up over when we payed those 14 people? Why does the county have to lease space at the jail for office space or storage from the state and if the state took over why do we the county of franklin have to pay the workers and not the state???? I say the state does not stand by what they say will happen. Lets fight to keep our dispatch before we lose Franklin County to the state.

  4. I went to the link provided but had to search to respond. I found it but was not able to respond as they said it was not avilable. Please note this is the same company the state had in 2007. To limit the psaps back then. We live in remote areas not city's. Cell phones don't work hardly here. I bet this company is from the city some where in the us. Not in a hard remote area. .

  5. Just googled the firm L.R.Kimbal who tells the state what should happened and they are from PA and have firms in NJ, TX, VA, WV go figure do they really know what happens in Franklin County, Maine??

  6. By the way is is 1,600 square MILES (not acres).

  7. Technology can be great, but it breaks down sometimes. Having you dispatchers in Augusta is like putting you eggs in one basket. Southern Maine has already had problems with 9-1-1 breaking down. There have been complaints in the past of state police dispatchers not handling calls correctly. They don't know Franklin County, they can't be expected to know and area that might cover several counties, (or worse might divide counties into sections). Yes, you'll save money, but you know someone in Augusta will find another place to spend those savings. Apparently our Franklin County representatives don't have enough clout in Augusta? The technology at our dispatch center has gotten much better over the years, but that stuff is only as good as the people who's using it.

  8. Some things that are meant for good are also used for evil. FYI buyer beware these GPS tracking cell phones can be used against you!

  9. Jim is correct, it is 1,600 square miles and not acres. The change has been made in the story.

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