Maine should have just two emergency call centers, top cop says

John Morris (right) with Maj. Gen. John Libby
Pat Wellenbach | AP
John Morris (right) with Maj. Gen. John Libby
Posted Oct. 05, 2011, at 6:06 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 06, 2011, at 5:33 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine has 26 public safety answering points. Public Safety Commissioner John Morris believes that can be reduced to just two for the entire state. Others are not convinced.

Morris suggests fewer answering points will yield savings, possibly enough to fully fund the two remaining call centers. But lawmakers that have worked on the issue and Tom Welch, chairman of the Public Utilities Commission, are not as sure.

“We have a study that recommends we go to 17 PSAPs and we are looking at implementing that recommendation,” Welch said. “I am not sure if there would be savings in that plan or in what Commissioner Morris is proposing.”

He said if the current centers all are operating at maximum efficiency, he does not believe there will be savings from reducing the number. He said there always will have to be staff available to handle the call volume and reducing the number of answering points will not reduce the volume of calls.

There were once 48 answering points in the state but that was reduced to 26 by the PUC after considerable debate. The call centers, which answer 911 calls and determine which emergency agency they should be directed to, are funded in part by a tax on both land lines and cellphones. In addition, part of the state’s regional call centers are funded by state appropriations and both call centers and dispatch centers are funded by assessments on local and county governments.

Rep. Stacey Fitts, R-Pittsfield, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee, said the number of answering points has been a hard-fought battle over his career in the Legislature and he expects it will continue in January with the proposal by Morris.

“I don’t know if it has a lot of legs at this point,” he said, “just based on the history of the issue and the outcry of opposition.”

But Fitts expects there will be support in the second regular session of the Legislature to reduce the number of call centers to 17 as proposed by the PUC-commissioned study.

“Maybe after that is in place we can look at what Commissioner Morris is proposing.” Fitts said.

Sen. Philip Bartlett, D-Gorham, the Democratic senator on the panel, agreed. He said in a short session it will be difficult to deal with such a controversial issue.

“When you are looking at something as drastic as going down to two, I think there will be folks from all over the state that will be upset and pushing back against that,” he said.

Bartlett said in many states the 911 answering function and the dispatch of services are done at the same facility. In Maine they often are separated.

Fitts said when Morris was police chief in Waterville he was a strong opponent of reducing the number of answering points. Morris said his concern was not the number of call centers or where they were, but the location of the dispatch function.

“Let’s keep the PSAPs separate from the dispatch centers,” Morris said in an interview. “They are different and are too often confused. The PSAPs answer the calls; the dispatch centers send police, fire or other EMS [Emergency Medical Services] to the emergency situation.”

Morris said local dispatchers can better handle the frantic phone call with few details.

He said another major concern he has is with the number of cell phone calls coming to the regional call centers operated by his agency.

From March through the end of August, the four state regional call centers handled 154,879 calls and 144,817 were from cellphones all over the state. About 42 percent of those calls were transferred to other dispatch centers. The state regional call centers act as both answering points and as dispatchers for state agencies such as Maine State Police and the Maine Warden Service.

“We are handling all of those calls and we don’t get paid for them,” he said. “That is something I am going to pursue.”

But Welch said Morris’ concern already is being addressed. He said the commission has ordered cellphone companies to install the proper equipment to make sure cell calls are routed to the correct answering point.

“That is already under way and I expect it will be completed in about six months,” Welch said.

Morris said he is not sure what he will end up proposing to lawmakers, but he said it’s clear to him changes need to be made.

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