SKOWHEGAN — Victims of domestic violence and other crimes in Somerset County can get help when they need it, thanks to a new program that offers free cellphones for them to dial 911 in an emergency.

The Somerset County District Attorney’s Office has teamed up with Maryland-based Secure The Call, which collects old cellphones and reconditions them for emergency use by crime victims, said Mike Pike, the district attorney’s domestic violence investigator.

Donation drop boxes have been set up at police departments and other locations for anyone who wants to help by giving up their old cellphones, Pike said.

“The phones are received by the organization, wiped clean of data, and repackaged and sent to us at no cost,” Pike said.

Pike said he received the first shipment of six phones recently and already has two crime victims who carry them. They include a charger and instructions, and though the phones are inactive, they can be used to call 911.

“Because they are inactive, they are not associated with a phone number or a particular person or a cellphone company, so there is a 10-digit number associated with each phone,” Pike said. “When we issued it, we take the number and start a ‘person file’ at the communications center.”

Pike said dispatchers can reference the person’s data collection sheet that is filled out when they are issued the phone and know who is calling and what his or her address is.

There is no call-back option with the cellphones and the 911 dispatchers can not track the caller, so it’s important for the caller to immediately tell the dispatch operator their name and location and say they are calling from one of the county’s emergency 911 phones, Pike said. Drop off boxes for donated phones are set up at the Somerset County courthouse, the Skowhegan Police Department, the Fairfield Police Department, the county sheriff’s office at the jail in East Madison and at Maine State Police Troop C Barracks in Skowhegan.

Pike said he got the idea for the emergency phones from a project initiated by Waldo County Sheriff Jeff Trafton.

“I don’t know of any other counties doing the program,” he said. “I also spoke with Sheriff Trafton in Waldo. He said he wasn’t aware of any others either.”

Pike said the cellphones are available to any law enforcement or service agency in Somerset County that is working with a victim in need and is not just limited to domestic violence victims.

“It doesn’t have to be domestic violence crime. It can be sexual crime, a financial crime — anyone who may be in a situation where they may need to call 911 in an emergency,” he said.

District Attorney Maeghan Maloney, whose campaign pledge was to combat domestic violence, said the cellphone project is a lifesaver.

“As (domestic violence) victims are often controlled financially as well as physically by their abusers, this program could be a lifesaver for a victim without access to money to pay a monthly cellphone bill,” Maloney said.

Pike said there is no cost to the county and no cost to the person using the cellphone. He said the company Secure The Call works with law enforcement and social service agencies, such as women’s shelters and senior centers all over the country. The company says on its website that there are an estimated 150 million used cellphones sitting in drawers and closets across the United States. Their goal “as a committed recycling organization” is to divert 100,000 old cellphones from America’s landfills each year.

Secure The Call is an all volunteer organization operating on grants, fundraisers and donations from large corporations. Most of the work to get the cellphones ready for 911 operation is done by high school students in Maryland, according to the website. To graduate, each student needs to complete 65 hours of community service. Secure The Call is an approved volunteer site.

Pike said the cellphones are valuable in domestic abuse situations because victims can have the devices and their partners may not know about it because there’s no cellphone bill to be paid. He said the Somerset County district attorney’s office will share all the project information with the Augusta Regional Communications Center because some 911 calls from the fringes of the county will go directly to that location.

Pike said his office will issue a cellphone to anyone through a request by a police department or social service agency or by calling Pike at the district attorney’s office at 474-2423.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

[email protected]

Twitter:@Doug_Harlow

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