County may outsource 911

ELLSWORTH — Hancock County officials may outsource the county’s Public Safety Answering Point service – where your 911 calls go – with Penobscot County.

Staffing, or lack thereof, is behind the drive to outsource.

Hancock County Regional Communications Center Director Renee Wellman told the Hancock County Commissioners last week that the RCC has an average of seven vacant shifts a week. Adding to the issue is the number of employee vacations coming up.

Also, just as the summer population swells, so do the number of calls coming into the RCC.

Finding enough qualified personnel to staff the center 24-7 has been an ongoing issue. But a related problem has been finding dispatchers who are qualified to do PSAP dispatching.

County Administrator Scott Adkins explained that “intense training, oversight and scrutiny of the PSAP parameters” are an issue. “Dispatching is one thing, but PSAP qualified personnel is another level.”

“This will not save us substantial monies up front, but will assist us with future costs, current staffing issues and overall enhancement of the service for Hancock County,” Adkins said.

It isn’t just the county that can’t find enough dispatchers. The city of Ellsworth and other municipalities also have had trouble finding them.

To that end, the city last year began contracting with the county to dispatch calls to Ellsworth police and fire during the overnight hours.

The commissioners plan to discuss the benefits and ramifications of contracting with Penobscot County. That discussion will take place at a workshop in June. At least one public hearing would follow if the board decides to pursue the proposal.

Penobscot County has offered PSAP services for $186,000 a year, Adkins told the board at a special meeting May 16.

Penobscot County would need at least six months to prepare to add Hancock County, he said.

If Hancock County contracts with Penobscot, any 911 calls from a Hancock County landline or cell phone would go first to the Penobscot County Regional Communications Center. A Penobscot dispatcher would send the call to the Hancock County RCC with the push of a button.

The Hancock County RCC would alert the appropriate first responders. Because the RCC staffs two dispatchers per shift, there won’t be any reduction in employees if PSAP calls are routed to Penobscot County first. But those two dispatchers will not necessarily be the higher-paid, trained PSAP call takers.

“The same staffing we currently have will be needed, but that’s in large part to us only having two spots per shift,” Adkins said.

There are efficiency concerns.

Each time a 911 call is transferred, time delays occur, according to a 2010 report conducted for the state of Maine by Pennsylvania-based firm L.R. Kimball.

The report provided recommendations for the optimal public safety answering point (PSAP) configuration for Maine.

“When 911 call takers are located in a separate facility and/or agency, the call taker must conduct a preliminary interview to determine the nature and location of the emergency,” the report stated. “The call must be transferred to the appropriate dispatch agency and the dispatcher then must re-interview the caller and dispatch field personnel.”

If 911 call taking and dispatching are occurring in the same agency, information is transferred to police, firemen, EMTs and other first responders quickly and efficiently.

In a critical incident, it’s helpful to have call takers and dispatchers operating from the same agency.

“All employees have a ‘big picture’ view of active incidents and can function effectively as team,” the report stated. “When 911 call taking is located in a separate facility and/or agency, the flow of information becomes fragmented, as transferring of calls is necessary.”

Another issue for the Hancock County RCC is that space is at a premium.

“In the next couple or three years, we’re going to have to think about moving out of this building into a larger facility,” said Commissioner Percy “Joe” Brown. “We’re talking $1.2, $1.5 million minimum.

“If we farm out our PSAP, we could probably do most of our dispatching with the space we have now,” Brown said.

Commissioner Bill Clark said “there are a number of issues.”

Clark suggested talking to Bucksport and Ellsworth about their plans for dispatch services.

“Do a full-scale evaluation and assessment by mid-June,” the former sheriff said. “It’s a time where we talk about everything.”

Brown added, “If we do want to keep our PSAP, then the towns of Hancock County are going to have to pay for it. We can’t continue to be involved in the training, the personnel, the space to do it without getting the money to do it.”

Commission Chairman Antonio Blasi said, “I agree with everybody. I have ideas for use of the labor that would be affected.”

Brown replied, “no one would lose their job over this.”

“The first thing is swallowing that $186,000 pill,” Adkins said.

“This will not save us substantial monies up front, but will assist us with future costs, current staffing issues and overall enhancement of the service for Hancock County,” Adkins said in an email.


Jennifer Osborn

Jennifer Osborn

Reporter and columnist at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Jennifer Osborn covers news and features on the Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Isle-Stonington. She welcomes tips and story ideas. She also writes the Gone Shopping column. Email Jennifer with your suggestions at [email protected] or call 667-2576.
Jennifer Osborn

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