PORTLAND — Emergency dispatchers in Portland and South Portland are entering the final phase of a consolidation program that began nearly a decade ago.

In the next few months, a dozen South Portland dispatchers will begin working at Portland’s dispatch center at 109 Middle St. South Portland’s center will remain fully equipped, so it can be used as a back-up facility.

The move to consolidate dispatch centers, known as Public Service Answering Points, began as informal talks in 2002 through the Metro Coalition of Cities, a group of six municipalities that met to explore regional projects.

The state mandated a consolidation of dispatch centers in 2005, from 48 to no more than 24. Then last year, the state indicated that only one dispatch center would be allotted in each of the state’s 16 counties.

Cumberland County, however, was the expectation. Portland was approved to keep its center open, provided South Portland, which started answering Cape Elizabeth fire calls in 2005, moved across the bridge.

In 2006, Portland and South Portland agreed in principle to combine dispatch centers. The move prevented South Portland from having to consolidate with the Cumberland County Communications Center.

“It’s a relief to get (the consolidation) underway and closed up,” said Tom Cavanaugh, Portland’s emergency communications director, who was hired last year to oversee the operation.

At that time, Portland was receiving emergency calls from all three communities and handling police calls. South Portland was dispatching all fire calls.

But that arrangement proved to be inefficient.

Dispatchers would question the caller to get the basic information about their emergency. If the call was generated in South Portland, it would be patched through to South Portland dispatchers, who would ask the caller the same questions.

“What that has done is built in a little delay,” South Portland Fire Chief Kevin Guimond said. “The transfer has really not been a good thing. It’s going to be good having everybody in one room.”

One of the major hurdles of the consolidation is upgrading technology and software so both communities are operating on the same platform. Guimond said the technological upgrades have been completely funded by more than $1 million in federal homeland security grants.

Another major hurdle was sorting out seniority among four collective bargaining units.

That hurdle was overcome last week, when the South Portland and Portland city councils approved contracts for existing dispatchers.

There are 25 dispatchers employed by Portland and 12 employed by South Portland. Both contracts are the same, with the exception of pensions and benefits for current employees, who will be grandfathered.

The contracts are retroactive to July 2009 and expire on June 30, 2012. Dispatchers will receive a $750 payment for 2009-2010 as well as a 1.5 percent wage increase for 2010-2011 and a 1 percent increase in 2011-2012.

The contract is expected to cost South Portland about $70,000 and Portland $53,500.

All new dispatchers will work under the provisions of Portland’s contract, and no dispatchers will be laid off as a result of the consolidation.

In fact, Cavanaugh said the new structure will increase staffing to an appropriate level.

“I think our staffing was low compared to call volumes,” he said.

About half a dozen dispatchers now work at any time in Portland, with two or three in South Portland. After the merger, there will be eight to 10 dispatchers on duty at all times.

Cavanaugh said the city received more than 6,000 emergency calls in January, a nearly 1,000-call increase over the previous year, since the state now requires municipalities to answer cellular phone calls.

Workers are currently in the process of bidding for shifts and applying for supervisor positions, according to South Portland Human Resources Director Don Brewer, who also works in Portland’s HR department.

There is also training that needs to occur, Brewer said.

Both Cavenaugh and Guimond said they expect the merger to produce financial savings in the long run through staffing, shared licensing and equipment purchases.

“It should be a better cost savings and better services,” Cavanaugh said.

Dispatchers are expected to begin operating out of one center sometime between April and July.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]

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