A sign points to the entrance of the Hancock County Sheriff's Office in Ellsworth. Credit: Bill Trotter

A steady increase in call volume, along with already cramped quarters, has Hancock County looking to expand its emergency communications center in the basement of the county courthouse.

The county currently has a room adjacent to the sheriff’s department offices where three emergency dispatchers can each sit at a console while they answer 911 calls and then relay relevant information to area police, fire and ambulance departments.

Robert Conary, the communications center’s director, said Thursday that the department needs room for a fourth console, so the county is looking to reconfigure and expand the call center and the entrance to the sheriff’s department. The concept is still in its early stages, but the project likely will involve moving a wall farther out into the sheriff’s department’s entry lobby.

“Our call volume every year has gone up,” said Conary, who also serves as chief of the Orland Fire Department. “We’ve outgrown the current space.”

Over the past four years, Conary said, the volume of calls to both the county’s 911 line and its regular business line have increased by around 16 percent. In 2018, the county’s dispatchers handled “just shy” of 16,000 calls placed to 911 and roughly 88,500 calls to its regular business line, he said.

“”Everyone has a cell phone now,” he said. “For every accident on Route 1, 10 people call to report it.”

Dispatchers also spend more time on each call than they used to, he said. They used to be able to forward emergency calls directly to fire departments but now have to stay on the line with the caller and forward the information, rather than the actual phone call, to the responding department, which is consistent with how dispatchers already handle police and medical calls.

When there is a significant emergency, such as a storm event or a large fire that involves mutual aid from several towns and often police assistance, it can keep three dispatchers relatively busy for an hour or more, according to Conary. Summer also brings more tourists and seasonal residents to Hancock County, which can boost the center’s call volume.

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The county also serves as a backup for some towns that provide their own dispatching, which it did recently when Ellsworth’s communications tower malfunctioned, Conary said. The city’s dispatcher walked across State Street from City Hall to the courthouse and used county equipment to communicate with Ellsworth’s police and fire departments until the problem was fixed.

“It can get very hectic and very busy,” Conary said.

The county has come up with a rough initial cost estimate between $150,000 and $250,000 for the project, but a lot of options are still being considered, he said. The project could involve moving the entry door into the sheriff’s department offices over a few feet and building a roof over the nearest exterior entryway into the building.

On Tuesday, county commissioners agreed to hire Ellsworth architect Mike Sealander to draft some ideas and cost estimates for the expansion, Conary said. He is hopeful that a plan will be developed and approved this year, so work can get under way before next winter.

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....