Four years after controversial switch, town signs new contract with county dispatch

Don

Durrah, supervisor for Cumberland County Regional Communications

Center in Windham, sat at his station viewing a bank of computer

screens in the heart of the center.

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“We

could have a picture of your house,” said Durrah, explaining

Tuesday how technology has revved up response to emergencies.

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In

August, the Gorham Town Council, impressed by the level of service

and the amount of savings the town has received from the county

communications center, unanimously approved renewing its contract

for another four years. On Monday, the county approved the contract

to extend the service.

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The

center has handled dispatch duty for Gorham since 2005 in a

consolidation deal marked then by opposition.

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“As

many of you remember, the switch was contentious at the time. Since

then the service from the county has been good, and the savings

have continued to pile up,” Gorham Town Manager David Cole wrote in

a July memo to the Town Council.

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The

county dispatches for the sheriff’s department and 13 communities

in the county, besides handling emergency 911 calls for 19 of the

county’s 29 communities.

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Significant savings

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William Holmes, director of the Cumberland County Regional

Communications Center, said the four-year renewal contract with

Gorham is for dispatching and emergency 911 services. The first

year of the deal calls for $248,000 and it increases by 3 percent

annually. The second year is $256,000; third year, $264,000; and

the fourth year, $272,000.

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Initially, the Gorham Town Council approved a two-year contract in

August 2005, agreeing to pay the county $210,000 per year. Gorham

had budgeted $432,000 for its own dispatch that year.

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“A

lot of money saved,” Matt Robinson, chairman of the Gorham Town

Council, said this week about the town’s dispatch deal with the

county.

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Holmes attributed savings for communities to efficiency in

utilizing manpower, building maintenance and purchasing equipment

like computers and software.

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“They save on upgrades,” Durrah said about the communities the

center serves. “Thousands.”

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A ticking clock

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In

addition to the savings, the service the county center provides is

also a benefit. It has been enhanced recently through the use of

technology, leading to quicker response times, officials said.

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Previously, emergency calls from cell phones in Gorham and the

other communities the county center serves were first routed to

Maine State Police. Since July 21, the calls have gone directly to

the county center. As an aid, a map pops up on a screen displaying

the location of a call.

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“There’s no delay,” said Holmes, adding that the new procedure

decreases the opportunity for misinformation and saves 30 to 40

seconds, critical time in an emergency.

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Holmes said the new cell call feature provides a name, address and

origin of the call. “It plots it on a map in the computer,” he

said.

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When an emergency call comes in, the “clock is ticking,” Holmes

said. The center’s technology now can locate a caller within 50 to

100 feet.

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“If

you’re lost in the woods, we’re going to find you,” he said.

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Recently, Holmes said, the center received a cell call from an off

duty South Portland public safety official, who spotted smoke off

Mosher Road at 5:17 a.m. on Aug. 19. A car, later discovered to

contain two bodies, was burning in a remote area about a half-mile

off the road.

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In

1 minute and 48 seconds from the moment the phone rang at the

center, it “toned out” to Gorham Fire Department. “We pressed the

button and dispatched the call,” Holmes said.

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Initial opposition

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The

Gorham Town Council approved consolidating dispatch with the county

in August 2005.

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But

a citizens’ petition the next month forced a referendum, and a

fiery campaign ensued in which some public safety personnel

picketed on the street to overturn the council’s decision. Fears

included loss of the personal touch offered by Gorham dispatchers

familiar with the town.

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In

the vote, 959 opposed the council decision while 796 sided with the

Town Council. But 2,245 votes were needed to validate the

referendum and only 1,758 ballots were cast. The move to overturn

the decision failed.

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Robinson said besides money saved, the council also considered the

level of service when it made the decision back in 2005. He said

this week there hadn’t been issues with county service at the time

of the decision, and Gorham was guaranteed its dispatchers would be

hired by the county.

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County dispatch followed through on that promise, offering jobs to

Gorham dispatchers. Five of six accepted, while one opted to accept

another job elsewhere. Although one of the five is part time, they

are still employed with the county, Holmes said.

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The

county communications center is staffed with 25 dispatchers,

including five supervisors. Robinson said Gorham dispatch was

always shorthanded, causing dispatchers to work overtime shifts.

“No more headaches for Gorham,” Robinson said.

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Working out

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The

county center has proved its mettle a number of times, officials

said.

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In

last summer’s microburst that caused widespread downed trees and

power lines, damaged buildings and fires in Gorham, the county

dispatchers worked closely with Gorham Public Safety and Gorham

Public Works. Dispatchers fielded 51 emergency calls for Gorham in

three hours.

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“We

had instant contact with (Gorham) public works,” Durrah said.

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Holmes, 51, said the microburst in Gorham was one of the worst

storms he’s witnessed.

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“I

wondered whether my car was going to tip over,” said Holmes, who

was driving on Mosher Road when the storm suddenly hit.

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In

the notorious Patriots Day storm in 2007, Gorham deputy fire chiefs

were on duty in the county communications center prioritizing

responses to emergency calls.

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Holmes said county dispatch placed a number of emergency calls to

the community with shelter information and road closings.

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Emergencies have forged a close working relationship for Holmes,

county dispatchers and Gorham officials. Holmes said he’s proud of

his staff.

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“I

believe Gorham Public Safety officials are also very happy with the

job the staff does at Cumberland County Regional Communication

Center,” Holmes said.

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The

dispatch consolidation with county didn’t leave Gorham without a

voice. Gorham has two members – Fire Chief Bob Lefebvre, who is

chairman, and Police Chief Ron Shepard – on the county’s

communications board of directors.

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“I’m very happy it worked for everybody,” Robinson said.

Don Durrah explains how emergency calls are handled at Cumberland County Regional Communications Center that dispatches for Gorham. (Staff photo by Robert Lowell)


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