VASSALBORO — When a 5-year-old’s parents dialed 911 after the boy started to have a seizure in September, Dan Mayotte, director of the Vassalboro First Responder Service, was a minute or so away, at his farm next door on Riverside Drive.

Because of an error by a dispatcher at the state-run Augusta Regional Communications Center, Mayotte never received the call for help. The tone had been put out to the wrong department — three times.

Mayotte’s pager had been set to alert him of only Vassalboro-toned calls, a standard setting if someone does not want to hear all of the radio dialogue on a channel. A responder about 4 miles up the road, whose pager was not on that mode, heard talk of the incident, even though it was not toned correctly. He quickly came to the scene and assisted the family, but the situation left Mayotte with a bad taste in his mouth.

The child’s seizure had been triggered by a high fever, which Mayotte said can happen, especially to young people, as the body attempts to cool itself down.

“We’re not talking a ton of time (lost), but it’s just one of those things that — I was there and I was close. I just didn’t know about it,” he said. “The call went out. The proper people went. The kid got treatment. It’s just a frustration on my end that I was right there. I just didn’t know about it.”

The concerns come amid heightened scrutiny of the regional dispatching center, which has gone through a period of high turnover recently that’s causing some officials to worry that responses could be affected. As of late July, 12 out of 35 dispatcher positions were filled. In mid-October, that the center had several new hires.

“We’ve got a number of positions filled already, some in training and a couple more going through background,” said Cliff Wells, director of emergency communications for the state Department of Public Safety.

Meanwhile, Vassalboro and Gardiner, along with about 20 other municipalities that use the state-run RCC for law enforcement dispatching, face an impending decision about whether to renew contracts with the center in June 2019.

Dan Mayotte, chief of Vassalboro First Responders, stands outside the Vassalboro Town Office and the Fire Department on Thursday. Mayotte has compiled a list of problems involving the Augusta Regional Communications Center concerning lack of or inaccurate dispatching to scenes of medical incidents in town. Staff photo by David Leaming

Although the change does not affect fire and rescue dispatching for contracting towns, the municipalities can opt to move their fire and rescue dispatch services elsewhere, with their law enforcement dispatching, or stay with the Augusta RCC.

Mayotte has headed the Vassalboro First Responders since its inception in 2014. In that time, he has amassed a log of errors with the state-run dispatch service that now runs two pages — or roughly 30 incidents — long. He said that while most of the grievances are minor, poor foundations could lead to more serious problems in the future.

“When you go into cardiac arrest, for example — seconds matter in a cardiac arrest call,” he said.

Mayotte expressed added concern about living and serving in a town where few responders cover a vast area without many direct roads. “Things are really spread out around here,” he said.

If an incident was not toned out correctly, like the case in September, and took place in an area where fewer first responders were concentrated, the situation could have been more serious. This is the kind of possibility that frustrates Mayotte. In addition to being a former dispatcher for Somerset County, Mayotte works full time for Delta Ambulance in Waterville, where he engages on a daily basis with four other communication centers.

“I’m on the EMD board for the state. I’m a certified emergency medical dispatcher, so I’m not talking out of turn,” he said.

Mayotte noted that no matter how many times he has voiced concerns to the regional communications center on behalf of Vassalboro First Responders, the state agency’s reply has been the same.

“Generally, it’s, ‘I see the problem. We’ll address it with that dispatcher.'” Mayotte said.

The Augusta center dispatches for 10 fire and rescue agencies in the state: those in Chelsea, Cornish, Gardiner, Hiram, Limington, Litchfield, Parsonsfield, Porter, Vassalboro and Windsor.

Not all of those towns feel the same way about the dispatch service as Mayotte does.

Gardiner’s fire and rescue chief, Al Nelson, who has held that position for the same amount of time that Mayotte has held his in Vassalboro, said he has not encountered a pattern of errors with the state-run dispatching center.

“While I understand the frustration that the Vassalboro community is going through, we’re not having consistent issues (with the RCC),” Nelson said. “When we do have issues, I call up and we deal with it. Usually it’s a minor issue with a dispatcher who just didn’t understand our protocol.”

“We are all human and we all make errors,” Nelson added. “I don’t see it as a systemic problem. I think it’s more of an individual issue.”

DIFFERENT PROTOCOLS

Over the past four years, other RCC-related complaints Mayotte has recorded include problems with the use of radio systems, failure to provide agencies with sufficient information about an incident’s location (such as a landmark or accurate address) and not sending the proper agencies or vehicles to a scene. Mayotte attributed the improper dispatching to the 10 towns the RCC serves having different rules for who responds to which types of incidents.

“We’re not a uniform machine like we probably could be,” Mayotte said.

On the contrary, Wells said, noting that many responses are the same for all towns the regional center serves, some towns do have special protocols about who needs to be called to a scene based on the staffing, vehicles and equipment they have.

“We do have standardized responses, and then some are specific,” Wells said. “A rollover, for instance: If there is a crash involving a rollover, fire and rescue go. Where they become unstandardized is … if you’re a first responder with no ambulance, we’ve got to send an ambulance.”

Cliff Wells is the director of emergency communications for the state Department of Public Safety. Staff file photo by Andy Molloy

Wells said that in circumstances where special protocols are in place, a computer system notifies the dispatcher of additional measures the responders need to take to respond to a call adequately.

“If there’s something different, unusual or unique — whether it’s a fire or a medical call — a response plan will pop up,” Wells said.

A couple of years ago, Nelson said he noticed “some small things that (RCC dispatchers) were doing that we didn’t want, but we didn’t know why.”

“One of the things we figured out was, I was talking to a supervisor, and he said he had some protocols from 2010,” Nelson said.

Gardiner had updated its protocols about which agencies respond to various scenes in 2015. Nelson said that after speaking with an RCC supervisor on the phone, the problem was solved quickly and he noticed fewer problems.

“(The response plans) can be updated any time an agency calls and requests a change,” Wells said.

Mayotte’s experience with the state-run communication center has been different.

“I have tried to work with them in the past with laying out the protocols. Sometimes it’s hard to work (with them) because they’re a state agency,” Mayotte said. “It’s hard to get them to conform to something that’s not their idea.”

A PATH FORWARD

Even if dispatchers must work with different municipality protocols for the same type of incident, Mayotte said he does not think it should be as difficult as it appears to be for dispatchers at the Augusta RCC.

“Mistakes happen,” he acknowledged, “but I also feel that if you set the protocols in place and it’s written down on paper or on the computer or whatever, it’s fairly easy to follow.”

Nelson said that creating a regional fire and rescue system — rather than having an amalgamation of independent agencies — could be a helpful step forward. A unified dispatching operation would be part of that vision.

“If we’re a county department, then we’re very easily standardized because we all operate the same,” he said. “We’re remiss if we don’t look at that. If you go to the mid-Atlantic states and some states out West, it’s all regional and there are very few independent departments. We know the model works. The question is how do we get it there (in Maine).”

Nelson thinks the state will head in that direction eventually.

“It just takes someone who has the political clout to get the right players at the table. Then it will happen,” he said.

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @megrobbins

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.