AUGUSTA, Maine — Although cellphone use has become more prevalent over the past decade, the way 911 calls are handled from cellular customers largely has remained the same.
That’s beginning to change.
When cellphones first started appearing in the 1990s, the Maine State Police, instead of local police and county sheriff’s departments, agreed to take 911 cellphone calls. Land-line emergency calls still would be taken by local police and county sheriff’s departments.
However, the method of how 911 calls are made has shifted dramatically over the past dozen years.
“The growth of cellular phones has just skyrocketed,” said Cliff Wells, director of the state’s Consolidated Emergency Communications Bureau.
“Over the last 10 or 12 years, we’ve really seen an increase. The ratios [are now] 60-40 — 60 percent are 911 calls from cellphones,” said Rob Bickford, Lincoln County 911 Communications Center supervisor.
Bickford said that for police agencies that don’t have a public safety answering point, or PSAP, 911 cellphone calls are sent to one of four Maine Department of Public Safety centers in the state.
There are 26 PSAPs in the state.
Some of the larger police departments — such as Bangor, Lewiston-Auburn and Portland — handle their own 911 calls, said Bickford.
“[The Department of Public Safety] gets the call, finds out where it is, takes the basic info and then transfers it to the appropriate [police agency],” said Bickford. “That’s a delay of 30-45 seconds per call.”
Karen Gerrity of the Maine Public Utilities Commission said county sheriffs’ departments are on a schedule to have 911 cellphone calls in their area come directly to them instead of having those calls routed to a PSAP and then to the sheriff’s department.
The Piscataquis County Sheriff’s Department is now undergoing that process, she said. Right now, most cellular 911 calls from that county go to an emergency call center in Orono.
“We’re hoping to be done with all the transition and rerouting by January 2014,” said Gerrity.
The time saved in having that call processed once instead of twice can make a big difference for someone in an emergency, said Tim Pellerin, director of the Lincoln County 911 Communications Center.
“It saves the caller those precious seconds or even minutes to get the help that they need,” he said.
Gerrity said cutting down on transfers was a big reason for the change. The local and county departments also were asking to have their calls sent directly to them.
Lincoln County was the pilot county for the project. It started receiving all of its 911 calls from cellphones back in 2004.
“Our workloads increased, but it was a gradual increase,” said Pellerin. “We were very fortunate. Back then, one in every 30 people had a cell phone. Today, one in every two, if not everyone has one.”
Gerrity said agencies across the state will slowly begin having emergency cellphone calls come to them.
“For any agency that doesn’t get any 911 cell calls [now], there’s going to be quite a big increase depending on population,” said Bickford.
A major reason for the gradual change is to make sure the local and county agencies can handle the call volume.
The cellphone companies in the state are working to make the switch, said Gerrity.
“We’re doing one carrier at a time,” she said.
Spokesmen for Verizon and U.S. Cellular said they are working with the state to gradually implement the changes in the handling of emergency 911 cellphone calls.