Safety first

Long a slogan embraced by the manufacturing and construction industries, the term “safety first” also should be the prime directive when it comes to debating the future of emergency dispatching services at a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) in Hancock County.

Faced with staffing shortages and a need for more space, county officials are discussing the possibility of farming out PSAP services. The highly trained people there answer the phone when people call 911 in an emergency. One possible option would be to contract with the Penobscot County PSAP in Bangor.

Representatives from several area police and fire departments appeared at a recent county commissioners meeting on the issue, to argue against the idea. In opposing the move, Bar Harbor officials cited several factors, including the recent expenditure of more than $250,000 in records management software that would be incompatible with software used in Penobscot County.

The primary consideration in this debate, however, should be public safety. Nearly everyone involved agrees that shifting dispatching services to Bangor would lengthen response times. And in an emergency such as a heart attack or stroke, even a minute or two could mean the difference between life and death.

There is no substitute for the general knowledge of local geography provided by dispatchers hailing from the immediate area being served. People using cell phones in emergencies often may be confused about where they are. Automatic location systems don’t always work. Local dispatchers quickly can ask the right questions to determine a caller’s location.

As is often the case when one receives directions in Maine, the geographic references are for buildings or landmarks “that used to be there.” Local dispatchers almost always have better institutional memories and knowledge of what’s on the ground in their areas.

Because of their relatively high property tax valuations, towns on Mount Desert Island pay a large share of the county taxes. While residents certainly appreciate county officials looking to save money by farming out PSAP services, most island folk truthfully would be more than willing to pay to keep emergency dispatching closer to home.

In debating how best to handle emergency calls, it is the safety of the people of Hancock County – the “S” in PSAP – not efficiency, not fiscal concerns and not politics, that should come first.

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