The Maine Department of Public Safety is terminating its law enforcement dispatch services for the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office and Gardiner Police Department, effective June 2019. The decision follows tension that has brewed between the sheriff’s office and the state since at least July.

The announcement was conveyed to elected municipal officials and managers in a letter from Cliff Wells dated Aug. 29. Wells is the director of emergency communications for the state’s Department of Public Safety.

Twenty-one Kennebec County communities — in addition to Gardiner — currently rely on the state’s regional communications center in Augusta to answer emergency and non-emergency police calls, although an Oct. 11 letter from Sheriff Ken Mason to the county’s boards of selecmen and town managers states that “a very small number of the actual 21 towns … would be effected (sic).”

According to Mason, the sheriff’s office is looking to partner with the Augusta Police Department to get dispatch services for communities in the county from July 2019 onward, although no contracts have been signed. Gardiner police Chief James Toman said he is “keeping options open” and will make a decision by Jan. 1.

Municipalities will have to decide individually whether to go through the sheriff’s office and use the Augusta Police Department for dispatch service or seek alternate options, which could include contracting with Somerset County, Lincoln County, Waterville or Winthrop or pursuing an independent relationship with the state-run Augusta Regional Communication Center.

The 12 fire and rescue dispatch services the RCC serves are not affected by this change and are separate from law enforcement dispatching.

Mason and Augusta police Chief Jared Mills will hold an informational meeting about the possible options on Oct. 29 for the towns under the sheriff’s jurisdiction. Although the contract between the sheriff’s office and the RCC expires June 30, Mason expressed a desire to figure out the county’s next steps as soon as possible, as the budgets of some of the towns involved operate on calendar years instead of other fiscal years.

“I can’t sit around and wait on this, because we need a dispatch center,” Mason said.

SOFTWARE CREATES DIVIDE

The decision to terminate the relationship largely stems from incompatibility between the computer-aided dispatch software used by the state’s communications centers and that of the Kennebec County’s Sheriff’s Office — and much of the rest of the state. The state has used Xwave for a number of years and announced earlier this year that it will switch to a program called Spillman. The sheriff’s office and Gardiner police are the only two clients of the Augusta RCC that use IMC software, though it is popular in other parts of the state. While Xwave could convert information partially to the IMC system, Spillman cannot.

In a letter sent to the towns and dated July 31, Mason said that he had been unhappy with the RCC’s service since March.

 

“Because the State enters all calls as GENERAL or OTHER, we cannot search for a specific call reason such as overdose deaths,” he wrote. “This type of data can be very important in the event we are going to attempt to defeat this problem in our community.”

Mason also mentioned that deputies receive roughly the first three-quarters of each service call because of the poor conversion interface between the state’s Xwave software and the sheriff’s office’s IMC software.

“I can only hope that the last 1/4 of the call narrative doesn’t say something to the effect: Use caution. This suspect in this case may be armed and dangerous,” Mason wrote in the July letter.

Wells said that the state cannot use IMC because it “doesn’t do large agencies well and couldn’t handle the volume of traffic in its system.”

Augusta’s RCC currently dispatches for seven state law enforcement agencies and four municipal police departments in addition to the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office, according to Wells. Wells said that its partnership with the Kennebec County Sheriff’s office leads to about 25,000 calls per year.

Both the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office and Gardiner police have the option to purchase Spillman software that would work with the state’s version of the program. However, Mason does not want to abandon the IMC system because the sheriff’s office has used it since 2005 and said that a switch would cause the department to lose its historical data. Gardiner police have been using IMC for 12 years. Toman requested a quote from Spillman several weeks ago but has not yet been given an indication of the amount the software would cost the town.

“The data transfer is certainly something we have to have greater discussion about,” Toman said. He said that on top of the price of the program, fees to transfer records from IMC to Spillman can be costly and there is no guarantee that all of the information will carry over.

Wells said he was considering having an interface written that would enable communication between Spillman and IMC. This would have cost $350,000 of state taxpayer money. In the letter that announced the RCC’s termination of dispatch services for the sheriff’s office and Gardiner in August, Wells explained: “IMC has indicated that they are also in transition within their organization and would be unable to consider our request for assistance with the interface for at least two years. Second the interface would not resolve any of the issues KSO has been experiencing with the current interface between Xwave CAD and IMC CAD.”

SHERIFF, STATE BUTT HEADS

Wells’ decision to stop this pursuit of an interface between Spillman and IMC was sped up when he heard that Mason was considering switching the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office dispatch service to Augusta’s Police Department. A month before Wells’ letter announcing that he would not be able to accommodate IMC systems, Mason had sent a letter, previously referenced, to town managers and selectmen on July 31 suggesting the move, which quickly was brought to Wells’ attention.

“At that point, we made the decision internally that we weren’t going to spend $350,000 on the interface and we gave KSO ample notice that we would not be able to work with them,” Wells said. “We cannot spend $350,000 of taxpayer money for an agency that’s going to walk away.”

Wells gave the sheriff’s office and Gardiner 10 months’ advance notice that they would not renew a contract for dispatch services. The required notice time is six months.

Mason said that Wells misunderstood his July letter.

“It went from me doing research on what things cost to, well, I really got to get in gear because as of June 19 they’re not going to dispatch for us,” he said.

The July letter stated: “We have done a lot of research and determined that the best and most cost efficient solution to this problem is to have the Augusta Police Department provide dispatching services for us,” and mentioned that a lieutenant at the office, Chris Read, supervised the Communications and Records Division at the Augusta Police department for 12 years. “(Read) is confident in the ability of the Augusta Police Department to provide the services we need at the same or perhaps a lower price that was (sic) the towns are currently paying for services with the State,” Mason wrote. The Augusta Police Department uses IMC.

EFFECT ON TOWNS

Kennebec County towns currently pay about $25,000 to $28,000 annually for dispatch services from the state-run Augusta RCC. This fee is based on call volume. Vassalboro Town Manager Mary Sabins said the town’s RCC invoice for the current fiscal year is $27,418. China police Officer Tracey Frost estimated China’s annual RCC expense to be $25,000.

“What we are attempting to accomplish is to get the best deal for the tax payers of the town of China,” Frost wrote in an email to the Sentinel.

Because Spillman has not provided Gardiner with an estimate for a municipal-level software program, and departments that could absorb Kennebec County have not provided quotes for dispatch service, it is unclear what this change will cost the 20-plus affected towns following the July 30 termination of the contract with the state. More information will be presented and discussed at the Oct. 29 meeting, which will take place at the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office in Augusta.

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

@megrobbins

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