January 26, 2022

More efficient dispatching weighed

ROCKLAND — Knox County taxpayers could cut their million-dollar emergency dispatching bill by two-thirds if they follow the trail blazed by their southern neighbors in Lincoln County.

The Knox County commissioners on Tuesday heard a presentation by Bill Cade, director of Lincoln County’s regional dispatching center, on the five-year effort there to meld the numerous and often redundant town dispatching operations into one cost-effective, efficient and well-trained county unit.

While Knox and Lincoln are similar in size, population and number of towns, the tale of two counties diverges when it comes to police, fire and ambulance dispatching. Lincoln’s center in Wiscasset has nine full-time employees and an annual budget of $320,000, compared with Knox, with six discrete dispatching services, one county and five municipal, with an estimated 40 employees and a total cost of $1 million.

In addition to the Knox County Sheriff’s Department, there are emergency dispatching centers in Rockland, Rockport, Thomaston and two in Camden, one for police and one for fire and ambulance.

The question of whether those services could be consolidated has alternated between Knox County’s front and back burners for nearly two years, with progress stymied by municipal fear that a regional solution is merely a county power grab and the county countering that the towns are more interested in protecting their turf than in serving the best interests of their residents.

Cade said Lincoln County began studying regional dispatching in 1991, implementing a countywide 911 service two years later. “We had the same suspicions to overcome,” Cade said, “but we succeeded by proving to the customers, the taxpayers, that when they punch those three numbers on the phone, they’ll always get the right answer from a real, live, well-trained communications professional who knows what to do.”

Unlike Knox County, where the issue is based upon concerns about duplicated services, Cade said the drive to consolidate in Lincoln was fueled by the increasing difficulty towns had in finding a local person willing to stand by the emergency phone day and night.

“There was a time when every town had a Mrs. Jones who would sit at her kitchen table with a radio and a red phone for practically no money,” he said. “There aren’t enough Mrs. Joneses out there today who will devote their lives to taking fire and ambulance calls.”

Cade said Lincoln County did have plenty of suspicions and grudges to overcome, some of historical proportions.

“We had two fire departments that were totally opposed to working together, still fighting over a 35-year-old incident of a stolen hose nozzle,” he said. “We had law enforcement agencies worried that we’d favor one over the other by referring calls to an agency we liked better. We took a lot of grief over that because agencies count the calls they handle — it’s important at budget time. We solved it by adopting a firm policy of getting the nearest available officer to the scene, whether it’s a municipal officer, a county deputy, a state trooper or a game warden. The citizen in trouble doesn’t care if the cruiser pulling into the driveway is white, blue or green as long as it gets there fast.”

To further defuse worries that the regional center is a county power play, Lincoln separated the service from the Sheriff’s Department this year, establishing it as a separate county department, run by the commissioners with guidance from a citizens advisory committee. The 15-member panel includes emergency personnel, a telephone company communications expert and a representative for the elderly.

Since previous discussions on regional dispatching in Knox County have broken down into spitting matches between the county and town officials, Cade recommended taking the matter directly to the taxpayers.

“You can make your case on better service, with highly trained, dedicated professionals at a fraction of the cost,” he said. “Out of our $320,000 budget, $240,000 is personnel costs. The price of the equipment, the technology, is going down all the time — we acquired all our equipment with no increase in county taxes. What always goes up is personnel — the more people you have getting in each other’s way, doing the same job, the more money you’re wasting.”

With the turf issue so intense here, Cade advised the commissioners to propose a regional service run by a resident-based board of directors, rather than by the commissioners with guidance from an advisory board. Cade also suggested that the county have the Maine Municipal Association contact reluctant town officials with the most recent information on the growing movement statewide toward the regional approach to essential services.

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