June 20, 2018
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Departing dispatchers a bad break

By Renee Ordway, Special to the BDN

For several years, many of my evenings were spent hanging around police dispatch offices.

A lot of coffee was consumed, a lot of laughs were had, yet everyone got his or her work done.

I reviewed police logs and read preapproved police reports, and dispatchers answered the phones and sent police officers out on calls.

I had a regular route — the Brewer Police Department, then the Bangor Police Department and the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Department.

If it was a particularly slow night, I might linger. There were always stories to tell and be told, always more coffee to drink and, on occasion, an actual news story might be culled from a conversation.

I knew I had become a “decent” reporter when I realized that, for the most part, I was welcome there. I was as much a part of their evening as they were of mine.

At the end of the evening, it was back to the office to produce what I hoped would be a meaty police beat column.

I would return the next night.

Being a police reporter is not at all unlike being a police dispatcher or a police officer. There are long periods of boredom, broken occasionally by complete chaos.

Truthfully, all of us really liked the chaos. Police beat reporters, news photographers, dispatchers, firefighters and police officers are always waiting for it.

We’re alike that way.

Traditionally, police officers, firefighters and dispatchers rely on one another to get through both the boredom and the chaos.

Relationships grow as they do in any work environment, but perhaps more so in police and fire stations.

There’s an innate closeness there; a level of camaraderie born perhaps from the shared knowledge that those who work there are more than co-workers. Inevitably, they are one another’s lifeline.

That’s not the case in every office.

A close-knit police and fire station is as close to home as almost any workplace can get.

So it has never been a surprise that nearly every police and fire department in Penobscot County was concerned about relinquishing its dispatch service to the Penobscot County Regional Communications Center.

Sure, there were initial concerns for safety, but for the most part each community was assured that officers or firefighters dispatched from one central location would not pose any threat to public safety.

I think that in many cases the hardest aspect of this change to swallow was the loss of the people — part of the family — part of a very close inner circle.

The loss of the one who chats and laughs over coffee during the boredom, the same one whose knowledgeable and calm voice on the other end of the radio help bring some sense of order and safety during the chaos.

There were not and are not any promises that all dispatchers released from individual departments will have a job at PCCD.

No one wants friends and colleagues to be at risk of losing their jobs.

One by one, year by year, communities across Penobscot County have realized, however, that closing the doors of their own, small dispatch offices and joining the PCCD makes fiscal sense.

Neither property nor lives have been lost because of regionalized dispatch.

It works, and it saves money.

The city of Bangor has been the lone holdout.

Police Chief Ron Gastia and Fire Chief Jeff Cammack have fought hard to retain the city’s own dispatch center, saying the operation is cost-effective and safer for its residents.

For 10 years, the majority of the council has concurred.

It would appear that finally the council is ready to push forward — to say that it simply makes no sense for the city to pay the county for a service that is not rendered. That it makes no sense that every police department in Penobscot County is dispatched through one office on Hammond Street in Bangor, except for Bangor’s, which is dispatched from a few blocks away.

It’s not necessarily an easy thing to do. The loss of a dispatcher changes the dynamic of any police or fire station.

But the residents of Bangor will be just as safe — and will save money.

I’m certainly glad I was a police beat reporter when I was. There was more access. It was friendlier. Police stations were open and not framed by glass walls and controlled by some unseen person on the other side of a remote speaker panel.

It’s a sad, but fiscally necessary, transition.

E-mail Renee at reneeordway@gmail.com, and listen to her and co-host Dan Frazell from 7 to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday on the radio at 103.1 The Pulse.

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