It seems like a pretty straightforward idea: Dispatchers in Brunswick answer public safety calls from Freeport, so why shouldn’t they also dispatch that town’s police cars, firetrucks and ambulances?

Freeport’s Town Council had no problem answering the question. It voted Tuesday night to approve a new contract under which Brunswick will dispatch Freeport’s public safety calls for $10,000 a month, plus a one-time fee of $122,500 for equipment upgrades.

Town Manager Dale C. Olmstead Jr. said the contract will save Freeport about $100,000 a year, the difference between what the town will pay Brunswick and the cost of the salaries and equipment for its own dispatch center.

With the volume of emergency calls increasing, he said, Freeport probably would have needed to hire another dispatcher soon, so the savings will grow in coming years.

But the new arrangement isn’t without controversy. Many residents have spoken out against the switch, and there’s talk of a petition drive to put the issue on the ballot. Police officers, who are in the same union with the town’s four dispatchers, oppose getting dispatched by Brunswick.

“There are some people in Freeport who do not like this idea,” Olmstead conceded. “I don’t think any community has consolidated dispatch services without some angst.”

Cumberland County now has a hodge-podge of dispatching arrangements. There are only five “public safety answering points” in the county, where all 911 calls are routed. But many of those answering points, after picking up the calls, transfer them to a community’s dispatchers.

For instance, the Westbrook Police Department’s dispatchers answer calls from residents in Westbrook, Windham and Falmouth. They dispatch only their own police, fire and rescue departments. Windham and Falmouth maintain their own dispatch centers, and calls from residents in those towns are transferred from Westbrook back to each home community.

Olmstead said that system, and not the savings, was the main reason for the consolidation in Freeport. Those extra seconds to field a call, transfer it and then dispatch vehicles could be critical, he said.

He also noted that Freeport’s dispatchers aren’t certified to handle medical calls, so a dispatcher from Brunswick had to stay on the line to help with those calls.

Olmstead said Brunswick, which has an open position for a dispatcher, will give hiring preference to the Freeport dispatchers, and it’s expected that two of the four will work there.

He said there’s also an opening for a patrol officer in Freeport, and one of the dispatchers is qualified for that job. The fourth dispatcher will be considered for a billing position with the Freeport Fire Department, he said.

Brunswick can expect to make money under the contract, since it’s essentially hiring only one extra dispatcher while collecting $120,000 a year from Freeport, said Town Manager Gary L. Brown.

“They’re saving money and we’re making money, and that’s what we’re all trying to do right now,” he said.

But Freeport’s police officers aren’t happy.

“Our dispatchers don’t just get on the radio and say, ‘Go to this place,’ or ‘Go to that place,’ ” said Detective Gino Bianchini, who is president of the union representing dispatchers and police officers in town. “They do a lot behind the scenes.”

Bianchini said the dispatchers do research on suspects for detectives, provide phone numbers and give out directions, making investigations and patrol jobs easier.

“There were here for us and they would help us out,” he said, adding that police will back a petition drive if it gets under way to force a referendum on the matter.

Elaine Greene of Freeport said she has gotten dozens of calls from others in town who are interested in overturning the council’s decision.

Most say the money could be saved elsewhere, she said, and people would be willing to pay a little more in property taxes if it meant keeping the dispatchers.

Local dispatchers, she said, know the town’s people, the trouble spots and the shortcuts through town, and they can convey that information to patrols.

“We do not want to lose that familiarity, that safety, that comfort that comes with dispatchers who know the town,” she said.

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

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