DOVER-FOXCROFT - A state plan to reduce the number of emergency call centers in Maine could delay response times and fragment services without saving money, say officials in two counties.
The Legislature asked the Public Utilities Commission last year to craft a plan by Nov. 1 to reduce the 26 Public Safety Answering Points, or PSAPs - facilities that handle enhanced 911 calls 24 hours a day - to 15 to 17. The comment period on the matter ended Monday.
While no determination has been made on what PSAPs will be consolidated, those in Piscataquis and Franklin counties are rumored to be on the chopping block because of their low call volumes, officials in both counties confirmed Monday. Because of that possibility, municipal and county officials have been rallying their positions against such a move.
"It creates unnecessary cogs in the mechanism," Dave Roberts, director of communications at the Piscataquis County Sheriff's Department, said of the consolidation.
If Piscataquis and Franklin counties lose their PSAP designation, another county or agency would receive their 911 calls, take the information, and rely the information back to the dispatch centers in the two counties for response, according to Roberts and Melinda Caton, dispatch supervisor at the Franklin County Sheriff's Department.
"We have learned from several examples that when our emergency calls are answered by another PSAP, services became fragmented," Roberts said. "Emergency responders were dispatched to wrong locations. People in need sometimes waited unnecessarily for long periods of time because the closest responding agency did not get the call."
Roberts and Caton also noted that consolidation likely would become an added cost to the taxpayers. Both said taxpayers would have to continue to fund the county dispatch services, but under the consolidation, those communities with fire and police departments would have to contract with the PSAP handling those calls.
What irks Caton, she said, is that Maine taxpayers have been paying a 911 surcharge on their telephone bills for years to cover the emergency service, yet some of those funds were used to balance the state budget. "Now all of a sudden there [are] not enough 911 funds," she said.
Caton said "it's not fair" that Franklin County would have to pay another agency or department a per capita fee to answer telephone calls that would be transferred back to Franklin County's dispatch. She said the county now answers all the U.S. Cellular 911 calls made in that county and all 911 land calls except those from Carrabassett Valley. Franklin County's facility already is a consolidated dispatch center, she noted.
Piscataquis County also has a consolidated dispatch-PSAP facility, one that covers 3,770 square miles, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island, according to Roberts. "We do not need consolidation and relocation because we already fit the model, and have done so for many years," he said.
A survey last year examining the likely effects of a consolidation of Piscataquis County's facility with another PSAP showed the cost would outweigh the price of current operations by $284,000, according to Roberts. Equipment costs such as radios and installation would be an added expense, he said.
Roberts noted that a separate study conducted for the state last year supported the current setup in Piscataquis and Franklin counties.
While Piscataquis County's emergency calls appear to be low according to a state software system that tracks 911 calls, many residents call the department's nonemergency number to report emergencies since the number has been in place for many years, Roberts said. Those calls are not counted by the state. In addition, if 911 cellular telephone calls made in Piscataquis County were routed to the Sheriff's Department as they should be, rather than to the Maine Bureau of Public Safety, the numbers would increase, he said.
Roberts and Caton, like other county officials, now must wait for the recommendation from the PUC.
The commission will issue a proposed PSAP consolidation plan next month. Once the plan is released, there will be a public comment period before an edited proposed plan is submitted to the Legislature's Utilities and Energy Committee by Nov. 1 for its consideration during the coming legislative session.