Good News About E 9-1-1
(from Maine Townsman, March 2001)
by Michael L. Starn, Editor

Encouraging news is coming out of the statewide E 9-1-1 project. 

This fall, E 9-1-1 service will be available in all 16 Maine counties. More than 12 years after voters approved a $3.2 million bond issue to get the program started, Maine citizens will have a statewide E 9-1-1 system.

Another piece of good news is that only a dozen or so communities have not started their street naming and numbering projects. About 350 have completed their naming and numbering projects up to the Post Office conversion. The remaining 150 or so communities have, at the very least, appointed an addressing committee and received base maps from the Maine Office of GIS.

And, the good news keeps coming . . . 48 Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) instead of the original 92 figure, a five year contract with Verizon to maintain the E 9-1-1 system, and an anticipated increase in the telephone surcharge to maintain the infrastructure of the system.

This all according to Al Gervenack and Maria Jacques from the State's Emergency Services Communications Bureau (ESCB).

Both Gervenack and Jacques point to one undisputed fact about the soon-to-be statewide E 9-1-1 system: Maine people will be much better off with E 9-1-1 than they were without it. That almost a million telephone users have access to 9-1-1 dialing capabilities is, in itself, a major advancement.

The ESCB staff also acknowledge that even though the E 9-1-1 system will be operational on a statewide basis this fall, it will still not be complete or error free. The Director of the ESCB, Gervenack says the E 9-1-1 system is a work in progress that will require ongoing maintenance and improvement.

Even though over two-thirds of the communities have substantially completed their naming and numbering projects, there are still gaps to fill.

To get the system up and running, the E 9-1-1 people had to accept something less than uniform addressing. For a variety of reasons, several communities deviated from the state's naming and numbering process. Most of the problems created by these deviations are minor ones, but when added together they create obstacles to making the system fully functional.

A minor addressing problem exists where communities border each other and use the same zip code. For example, Chelsea uses the Augusta zip code, 04330, and Chelsea also has a few streets with the same name and number as Augusta. The problem is that the Postal Service scanners only pick up the street address and the zip code. A small correctable problem, nevertheless, a troublesome one that has to be worked out between the Post Office and the municipalities involved.

Another addressing problem comes with renters. Municipalities don't have ready access to housing information. Municipal officials may know who owns a particular house, but they wouldn't necessarily know who lives there. For E 9-1-1 purposes, it is important to connect the location of a person/residence to a phone number.

The issue of connecting phone numbers to physical addresses has been more difficult to untangle than at first thought. Early on in the E 9-1-1 development, it was thought that once the municipality and Post Office worked out the bugs in the municipality's addressing conversion, computerized cross-checking could be done with the telephone company's customer data base. It was thought that most of the addressing information would be verified and the inconsistent data would be flagged, and quickly reconciled.

It was not that simple, however. One obstacle was the confidentiality of the postal addressing information. Fortunately, the U.S. Postal Service in Maine has been very cooperative in overcoming this sensitive issue. By signing confidentiality agreements, municipal addressing committees have been able to get individualized addressing information from the Postal Service which enables them to fill out their naming and numbering data.

Similar to the renter problem in larger communities, coastal and other communities with a large non-resident population have had difficulty reconciling their addressing changes with the phone company's records. This is because phone company records are tied to who pays the bill rather than who lives in or owns a particular residence.

Much of the addressing problem that the E 9-1-1 project has had to overcome boils down to three different ways of looking at the where people live. For municipalities, there primary interest is in ownership and who pays the property tax, for the post office, their primary concern is who gets the mail at a particular address, and for the phone company, they want to know who gets the bill. Merging this information to create an accurate E 9-1-1 data base has been a major challenge.

The mobility of cell phones creates another addressing challenge. According to Gervenack, all cell phone calls to E 9-1-1 will be routed to the State Police PSAPs (there are four). Practically speaking, cell phone users will be able to take advantage of statewide 9-1-1 but not "enhanced" 9-1-1. For the time being, emergency calls from cell phone users will not have an address that shows up on the PSAP computer. Information about the caller's identity and location must be gathered from the caller and the call is then dispatched to the appropriate emergency responder.

Gervenack says the issue of cell phones and E 9-1-1 is now in hands of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). He says that Global Positioning Systems (GPS) technology can pinpoint a cell phone caller's location, but cost has become a factor in using this technology. Cell phone companies are balking at the idea of incorporating GPS technology into their phones within the current FCC timelines.

Financing the E 9-1-1 system has not been a cakewalk either.

The problems started with an underfunded bond issue. The E 9-1-1 task force had asked the legislature for $13 million in 1988 to set up the statewide system. The legislature approved $3.2 million for the bond issue.

For years, the E 9-1-1 staff struggled with not only how to implement the statewide system, but also how to adequately fund it. In 1994, a 2 cent surcharge was added to telephone bills to support the implementation of E 9-1-1. Then in 1996, that surcharge was raised to 20 cents and in 1998 it was raised to 32 cents.

This year, ESCB staff are working to gain the legislature's approval to up the surcharge to 58 cents. This amount, says Gervenack, will fund the system through the next biennium. Gervenack says that the actual cost of running the E 9-1-1 program would require an 80 cent surcharge, but that carryover funds combined with the 58 cent surcharge would adequately fund the project for the next two years.

Another stumbling block for the E 9-1-1 program has been a few municipalities' unwillingness to support their regional PSAP operation.

Some confusion has existed over which level of government - state or local - funds what part of E 9-1-1 system. According to Gervenack, the state will pay for the design and maintenance of the data base, for the PSAP equipment and for the training of PSAP operators. Municipalities or counties must provide the building for the designated PSAP and pay for the operation of it.

In Aroostook County, some municipal and county officials had a different understanding of how the financing would work. They believed that the state was going to pick up the entire tab of the PSAP.

Municipal officials in Aroostook rejected the idea of having the county run the PSAP, opting instead for the regional state police office to perform that function. But, the local officials didn't believe they should have to pay for it. The state police said it would require three full time operators to handle the Aroostook County PSAP, and they did not want to pay for this additional staffing either.

Getting a PSAP in Aroostook County created a new financing problem for the ESCB. Seeing their mission as implementing a statewide E 9-1-1 system, the ESCB staff are asking the legislature to approve using 3-cents of the new surcharge for PSAP operation costs in Aroostook County and Hancock County (funding of the PSAP operation was not included in the Hancock County budget).

Even though the number of PSAPs has been whittled down by almost half the original projection, ESCB Director Gervenack thinks 48 PSAPs is still too many. He says that more regionalization of dispatching will improve the efficiency and cost effectiveness of the E 9-1-1 system.

In a PSAP you can get rescue, police and fire dispatching all from one location. This can be a great benefit to the emergency service providers, says Gervenack.

From an effectiveness standpoint, a community also gets trained, full time dispatching in a PSAP, according to Gervenack. Dispatching operations on the municipal level are sometimes understaffed and use outdated technology because of funding limitations.

Regionalizing the dispatching, however, has been one of E 9-1-1's greatest obstacles. Some say it is because of "turf battles"; others say it is because communities don't like giving up control. Whatever, or whichever, the reason, getting communities to join forces for dispatching has been difficult.

While not being heavy handed about it, the ESCB has strongly encouraged regionalization of dispatching. After seeing the benefits of consolidation, the municipalities in 10 of the 16 counties decided to have only one PSAP (within the county). Cost-savings has been the most compelling reason for communities to move toward regional dispatching.

The City of Belfast had to make a decision between having its own dispatching and joining Waldo County's regional PSAP/ dispatching center. It was not an easy decision for city officials.

Some key factors that weighed heavily in the decision of the Belfast officials were: (1) dispatching in Belfast is a $150,000 budget item; (2) the city had four dispatchers whose jobs needed to be protected; (3) the city pays 20 percent of the Waldo County budget; and (4) Waldo County was going to build a $600,000 PSAP/regional dispatch center with or without Belfast being part of it.

All the other communities in Waldo County had agreed to be dispatched out of the county PSAP.

City Manager Terry St. Peter said that the decision to join the regional dispatch "made (the most) sense." He acknowledges that it wasn't an easy decision, but thinks it was the right decision.

In their negotiations with Waldo County over joining the regional dispatching, Belfast officials insisted on retention of the jobs of their four dispatchers. They also insisted on comparable (to what they were getting as city dispatchers) pay and benefits for these individuals.

Ironically, one of the dispatchers who opposed the city joining the regional dispatching center has been hired to be the director of dispatching for the Waldo County PSAP.

One problem created by joining the regional dispatch center is staffing at the city's Public Safety building. Dispatchers were sometimes the only people at the public safety building. Now, St. Peter says someone will probably need to be hired to ensure that the building is always manned.

The city did not save all of its current dispatching costs, but it's net savings will be significant, according to St. Peter.

The Town of Orono decided to close down its municipal dispatch center and join the Penobscot County Communications Center a couple of years ago. That decision is saving the town about $70,000 a year.

When the offer to join the regional dispatching center was first made, Orono town officials turned it down taking a wait-and-see approach. After more than a year of watching how the regional dispatch center worked, town officials finally bought into it.

Town Manager Gerry Kempen says the major, if not only, reason that Orono went with the regional dispatching was cost-savings. When the decision was made, Orono had four full-time dispatchers and several part-time dispatchers. The dispatching operation was costing the town about $170,000 a year. Kempen estimates the net savings to the town at around $70,000 a year (one of the dispatchers was kept on as a public safety employee).

In June when the Penobscot County Communications Center gets activated as a PSAP, all the communities in Penosbscot County, except for Bangor and Old Town, will be dispatched through the regional center. The Center will also be transitioning from basic to enhanced 9-1-1.

The benefits of E 9-1-1 has already started to show up in southern Maine where it first went live.

In early March, a barn caught on fire in Lebanon and the owner quickly dialed 911. A short passageway attached the barn to the house. The following is an excerpt from an article about that fire, published in Foster's Daily Democrat:

Lebanon Fire Capt. Jason Cole called the work done by firefighters to preserve the house "a nice save," adding that Enhanced 9-1-1 helped because Morin's phone line burned off after he gave his name but before he gave his address. Cole said it could have taken a couple of extra minutes to find the address without E 9-1-1. Crews were on the scene in just six minutes after the call.

The best of the good news about Maine's E 9-1-1 system occurred in January in South Berwick.

A woman was experiencing chest pains and dialed 9-1-1. Shortly after the call was received at the South Berwick PSAP, no response came from the person on the other end of the line. Fortunately, the PSAP dispatcher had the person's name and address on the computer screen. A rescue squad was immediately dispatched to that address. The door to the residence was locked. After quickly verifying with a neighbor that the woman whose name appeared on the E 9-1-1 call screen actually lived there, the members of the rescue unit pried the door open and found the woman unconscious on the floor. She had had a heart attack while making the 9-1-1 call. Her life may have been saved because of it.

PSAPs By County

County  PSAP
Androscoggin  Androscoggin Cty SD
Lewiston/Auburn 911
Lisbon PD
Aroostook MSP RCC - Houlton
Cumberland  Brunswick PD
Cape Elizabeth PD
Cumberland Cty SD
Cumberland PD
Falmouth PD
Freeport PD
Gorham PD
MSP RCC - Gray
Portland PD
Scarborough PD
South Portland PD
Westbrook PD
Windham PD
Yarmouth PD
Franklin  Franklin County SD
Hancock  Bar Harbor PD
Kennebec  Augusta PD
Gardiner PD
Kennebec County SD
MSP RCC - Augusta
Waterville PD
Knox  Knox County RCC
Lincoln  Lincoln County 9-1-1
Oxford  Oxford County RCC
Penobscot  Bangor PD
MSP RCC - Orono
Old Town PD
Penobscot Cty RCC
Piscataquis  Piscataquis Cty SD
Sagadahoc  Sagadahoc Cty Communications
Somerset  Somerset County RCC
Waldo  Waldo County RCC
Washington  Washington Cty SD
York  Biddeford PD
Kennebunk PD
Kennebunkport PD
Kittery PD
Old Orchard Beach PD
Saco PD
Sanford PD
South Berwick PD
Wells PD
York County Communications
York PD


E 9-1-1 Implementation Schedule

County  Month (2000-01)
York  November/December
Cumberland  January/February
Androscoggin, Knox, Lincoln, Sagadahoc, Oxford April
Kennebec  May
Waldo, Penobscot, Aroostook June
Franklin, Somerset, Piscataquis, Hancock, Washington July