A potential consolidation of Gorham’s and Westbrook’s emergency call centers has local dispatchers concerned about the effect it could have on their jobs and communities.

Two Gorham dispatchers planned to take their concerns to the Gorham Town Council on Tuesday, May 3, and ask for a public hearing on the town’s discussions to consolidate dispatching.

Gorham officials have talked with Westbrook and Cumberland County about consolidating dispatching centers. A change would relocate Gorham’s dispatching outside of town.

“The citizens would lose a lot,” said Gorham dispatcher Trixi Morin last week.

If a deal between Gorham and Westbrook materialized, Westbrook would phase in Gorham dispatching. The proposal would begin with a takeover of emergency 911 calls. The next steps would include handling Gorham police calls followed by those for fire and rescue, and then non-emergency calls.

“Westbrook has made a formal proposal to Gorham to adopt their dispatch operation,” said Westbrook Police Chief Paul McCarthy.

McCarthy said on Tuesday afternoon that Westbrook would be sending a formal proposal regarding dispatch operations to Gorham within the next few days. He said he did not want to release the proposal until Gorham administrators received and reviewed it.

Talks to regionalize dispatching duties are not new in Gorham. Gorham Police Chief Ronald Shepard said talks about it date back to 1993, before he was chief. McCarthy said it marked the fourth time Westbrook and Gorham had discussed combining dispatching.

At one time, Gorham had talked about combining dispatch services with Westbrook and Windham in a three-way deal. “It’s not a new discussion,” Shepard said.

Recent talks have been spurred by a state rule mandating the reduction in the number of emergency 911 call centers from 48 to between 16 and 24 statewide. Although state government encourages regionalization, the state hasn’t mandated that communities combine dispatching. Gorham could still keep dispatchers even if the town’s emergency 911 calls were handled by a shared emergency call center.

Peter Crichton, manager of Cumberland County, said the regionalization target in the county would be to reduce emergency 911 call centers from 14 to five or less. It would be a move to reduce government costs. Crichton said the state has to pay Verizon for emergency 911 operations, costing the state millions of dollars.

Recent Gorham discussions with Cumberland County have been directed at relocating the current emergency 911 call center in Gorham along with all dispatching duties to the county’s 911 call center located in the county’s emergency bunker in Windham. Crichton said they had a “very preliminary” meeting with Gorham three weeks ago. “We’re taking it one step at a time,” he said.

Gorham Town Manager David Cole said Monday that dispatching in Gorham would cost $316,000 under the proposed town budget for next year. He said that figure doesn’t reflect the benefits dispatchers receive. Cole said it was too early in discussions to know what consolidation costs would be.

Gorham Fire Chief Robert Lefebvre, who wasn’t involved in the dispatching discussions with Westbrook, said Gorham is still gathering information about consolidation. The information about costs and cost savings would be given to Cole and the Town Council, who would have to decide who would answer citizens’ calls, he said.

In addition, Shepard said town officials are looking at what the town would lose if it combined services. Morin and fellow dispatcher Julie Poland say the town would lose a lot, citing their “Community Cares” program as one example that wouldn’t carry over to consolidation.

Gorham dispatchers handle a fluctuating number of calls each day from elderly people, who check in to let someone know they’re OK. Last week, five women were calling. If they fail to call, dispatchers send a police officer to check on them. “We’re family to them,” Poland said about elderly callers.

Four of the seven present Gorham dispatchers live in town and Morin and Poland feel they can serve the community better than dispatchers who won’t be familiar with Gorham. As of last week, Gorham dispatcher had answered 27,000 calls this year. Sometimes they answer a 911 call for an emergency that actually happens in Gorham, N.H. But dispatchers’ local knowledge helps them figure that out and quickly route the call to where it should have gone.

While technology in the state’s emergency 911 system allows pinpointing origin of calls, knowing Gorham and Gorham people can often aid response times. Some residents are still unfamiliar with dialing 911 in emergencies. This winter, Poland handled a call on their business telephone line reporting that a man had injured his hand in a snow blower.

Knowing the lay of the land comes in handy, as Morin cited a call from teenagers at an accident scene. The teen making the call was shaken up. Morin found out where they were through questioning. She knew the road and learned what part of town they were in.

In cell phone calls, Gorham dispatchers, if they lose contact, are often able to glean enough information to dispatch emergency vehicles. And Morin and Poland have concerns about the welfare of children, who often need to make emergency calls. “We know the town,” Poland said.

The dispatchers serve as eyes and ears for police officers in the Municipal Center and some people walk in to file complaints. Dispatchers monitor a booking room in the police department as well as the parking lot, where trouble sometimes has erupted.

Regionalization is aimed at cost savings and a reduction in the number of jobs. Gorham dispatchers worry about losing theirs. “We’re not guaranteed jobs,” Poland said, if dispatching were regionalized.

Gorham dispatchers have been working without a contract since June 30. Cole said the town and dispatchers, who are unionized, started negotiating a month or two ago. Cole said both sides waited for the outcome of the Palesky tax cap measure that faced state voters in November.

Poland and Morin see the personal touch disappearing if dispatching left Gorham. “We care because we live there,” Morin said.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: