Opposition heard on reducing dispatch centers

Posted Sept. 22, 2010, at 8:01 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Local and county officials as well as public safety professionals lined up to tell the Public Utilities Commission that a draft plan to reduce the number of emergency dispatch centers in the state, will cost more and not improve public safety.

“Certainly for Bangor and I know for many other agencies in the state, it will cost money to consolidate; it will not save money,” said Bangor Police Chief Ron Gastia at Wednesday’s hearing. He said the study done for the PUC did not take into account a number of factors — including Bangor’s growth from about 32,000 people to 150,000 people during a weekday from all those that work and shop in the city.

Gastia and others at the hearing were responding to a consultant’s report for the PUC that recommended consolidating to about 16 of the various public safety answering points or PSAPs throughout the state. Maine has 26 PSAPs while most states have far fewer. For example, neighboring New Hampshire has just two PSAPs.

PSAPs provide the dispatch services that directly answer 911 calls and determine where to direct those calls, whether it be to a police or fire department or ambulance service.

“I think there are other police and fire agencies in the state that have the same issues we do with this proposal,” Gastia said.

Last year, city officials estimated Bangor would save about $577,000 by cutting its dispatch program, but would spend an estimated $650,000 to transfer those costs to the county level.

Waldo County Commissioner Amy Fowler represented the Maine County Commissioners Association and told the three PUC commissioners the group supports a proposal to have a minimum of one PSAP per county. But she said there are areas where more than one PSAP per county is warranted.

“MCCA opposes any effort to force Aroostook County to return to the Houlton DPS,” she said. “Aroostook County, and any other for that matter, should be allowed to choose who will answer the 911 calls coming in to that region.”

Michael Thurlow, the fire chief and emergency management director for Scarborough, said the motivation for the reduction in PSAPs has nothing to do with public safety and everything to do with funding of the services.

“We wouldn’t be having this discussion if the governor hadn’t diverted over $7.4 million from the E-911 surcharge account to balance the state budget,” he said. “Those were dedicated funds the citizens of Maine paid in good faith to fund the present and future operations of the state’s E-911 infrastructure.”

He said the situation was made worse when, to deter further “raids” on the fund, the Legislature reduced the monthly surcharge, which reduced the balance in the fund. He said part of any solution to the PSAP issue should be passage of a law to prevent future diversion of that fund for other purposes.

The state’s E-911 system is paid for through both the surcharge on phone bills and property taxes levied by both municipalities and counties.

Many communities have entered into their own voluntary agreements to operate their E-911 services. Some contract with county-run centers, other with state-run centers, and some have cooperated to set up their own regional operations.

Jim Keene, representing the board of directors of the Tremont Volunteer Fire Department said the current dispatch system run by the neighboring town of Southwest Harbor is working very well and sees no reason to change. But he warned that the state could find that too much centralization in dispatch services could have serious unintended consequences.

“I think back to when there was the Ice Storm,” he said, “The Ice Storm brought down towers and it brought down phone lines and all sorts of communications.”

The Legislature directed the PUC to come up with a recommendation to reduce the number of PSAPs to 15 to 17 sites. PUC Chairman Jack Cashman made that point clear at the opening of the hearing.

“The process started with the Legislature and will end there,” he said. “The plan will go to the Legislature and whether it is implemented will be up to the Legislature, not the PUC.”

He said the PUC expects to finish its recommendations in October after reviewing the written testimony submitted over the summer and from comments made at the public hearing. The recommendation is due to be submitted to the Legislature by Nov. 1.

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