April 23, 2018
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Routing of cell 911 calls vexes sheriff

By Diana Bowley, BDN Staff

DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — A Sangerville resident recently called the Piscataquis County Sheriff’s Department three times wondering when an officer would respond to his friend’s 911 call regarding a vandalism complaint.

Dispatcher Fred Brawn recalled Wednesday that he was unaware what the caller was talking about until he figured out that the homeowner who reported the vandalism had used a cell phone to file the report.

All cell phone calls made in Piscataquis County are routed to the Maine State Police, which handles the calls instead of passing them on to the county. In the Sangerville incident, the homeowner’s friend called the Sheriff’s Department two more times on his land phone, upset that an officer had not yet arrived.

“That happens quite frequently,” Brawn said.

And that frustrates Sheriff John Goggin, who says he takes the heat from callers who complain that the response could have been more timely. In some instances, Goggin said, he has had officers pass by people who have made cell 911 calls, and those people call and ask why the officer hadn’t stopped. The trouble is, he said, the state police do not share the information from the caller, so the department is unaware of the call.

“People call and they start giving us the devil because they had to wait 20 to 45 minutes for an officer [a state trooper] to get on scene when one of our officers could have been there in five minutes,” Goggin said Wednesday.

This has been a perpetual issue for the Sheriff’s Department, which is one of 26 Public Safety Answering Points, or PSAPs, in the state, according to Goggin. He said there is no reason that the county can’t receive the cell calls since the dispatchers are trained and the department is equipped for the changeover. Piscataquis County commissioners on at least two occasions have asked the state to address the problem without success, he said.

Maria Jacques of the Maine Emergency Services Communication Bureau said the bureau and the Legislature are addressing the issue and have commissioned an independent study. Recommendations from the study — which addresses how the state can reduce the PSAPs from 26 to between 15 and 17, and where cell phone calls should be routed to — should be released in the fall, she said Wednesday. As part of the study, all law enforcement departments were asked to answer a survey, but Piscataquis County was the only department that did not participate, she said.

Goggin said his department didn’t participate in the survey because he believed the survey answers would be used against the department and it would lose its PSAP designation.

“I have no objection to county residents calling the state police with any complaint, but I just want them to be aware that cellular 911 calls are received by the state police,” Goggin said.

He believes the calls aren’t transferred to his department because state police are trying to justify their own existence.

“The state police has a system called ‘Magic,’ which records all their calls and which builds statistics, and with any organization in this day and age, if you don’t have the statistics, you don’t have the existence,” David Roberts, the Sheriff’s Department’s communications supervisor, said Wednesday.

Chad Labree, an emergency communications supervisor for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said Wednesday that his section handles cell 911 calls from Penobscot, Hancock, Washington and Piscataquis counties, but Piscataquis is the only county that does not have a call-sharing agreement with the Maine State Police. He said the county used to participate in the agreement but pulled out later.

“If there was a call-sharing agreement between the state police and the Sheriff’s Department, we would transfer that call appropriately to the law enforcement agency covering that particular area,” he said. “With no call-sharing agreement, … you get it, it’s yours.

“Proven by the other three counties, call sharing works,” Labree added.

The call-sharing agreement divides a county on alternating weeks, with one half covered by state police and the other half by the Sheriff’s Department.

Despite the fact Piscataquis County has no call-sharing agreement, Labree said there are not a lot of cell 911 calls made in Piscataquis County. “The fact is, it’s a very dense area and the reception in that area is not that good,” he said.

Goggin said his department had the call-sharing agreement for three years, but he ended it because the state police were not upholding their end of the agreement.

“What was happening over a period of time is we would get calls from the half of the county state police were handling because the state police did not have the manpower to respond,” Goggin said. “They took the call and they got the credit for the call, but they turned around and asked us to respond.”

In addition, Goggin said he found that the troopers scheduled to cover part of the county often were in another county, which resulted in a much too long response time, so his officers would respond instead.

“We felt obligated because this is our county,” Goggin said.

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