PORTLAND, Maine The cities of Portland and South Portland have reached a preliminary agreement on combining their emergency 911 call centers.
Under the proposal, which recently received tentative approval from both city councils, the two centers in South Portland and Portland will merge into one larger center in Portland by October 2008.
The consolidation of the centers, known as Public Safety Answering Point centers, will not affect the personnel or the budgets of the two cities, South Portland Acting City Manager Jim Gailey said Friday. However, the costly specialized software needed for the 911 centers can be removed from the South Portland location, saving considerable money for the state, which funds the 911 hubs.
"It's a very hardware- and software-intensive operation," Portland Fire Chief Frederick LaMontagne said.
The South Portland dispatch center will continue to operate as an emergency dispatch center, fielding calls from the 911 center. Dispatch centers, which both cities already have, usually direct information from 911 calls to the appropriate police, fire and rescue departments. However, under the reorganization, rather than handling calls for all the departments, the South Portland emergency dispatchers will be in charge of dispatching fire and EMS services, while the Portland emergency center will handle calls for police services.
"It's really going to be very seamless," Gailey said. "The citizen or business will not even notice the changeover."
He said that giving each city specific personnel to be in charge of dispatching allows for specialization, and therefore more efficiency.
Portland Police Chief Tim Burton said the setup has even more advantages in the event of a disaster or major emergency. He said combining forces "enhances our ability to manage our emergency response" over the entire area.
However, both cities will maintain the equipment and personnel needed to operate on their own if necessary, so "in the event one location is compromised, the other will maintain full capability," Burton said.
Each city held workshops to discuss the idea. The South Portland City Council gave preliminary approval in early May, Gailey said, and the Portland City Council gave an informal go-ahead after a June 4 workshop. The cities have yet to sign a formal agreement, but Gailey said that's just a technicality.
"We're spending money. We're moving on this," he said.
The move to consolidate comes after a push by Gov. John Baldacci to regionalize 911 call centers to save money. A state law enacted in 2003 requires the 48 call centers in Maine to drop to between 16 and 24.
Each 911 call center must be furnished with special equipment that answers 911 calls and instantly displays information about where the call originated. Maine taxpayers pay for this equipment through a 50-cent surcharge on their telephone bills. Some of the equipment is old and needs to be replaced. To keep the surcharge at 50 cents, many call centers must consolidate.
"The city of South Portland was informed it couldn't keep its answering point," LaMontagne said. "We found a lot of common ground between our two municipalities, and we decided our communities could share dispatch points."