April 20, 2019

Regional dispatch opposed> Bangor firefighters, police voice concerns

BANGOR — Numerous Bangor police officers, firefighters, dispatchers and supporters urged city councilors Tuesday to refuse Penobscot County’s invitation to join its fledgling regional dispatch center, at least for now.

The gist of most of the statements was that the savings that the city might realize by joining the center, which opened last month, could not offset the increased risk to police, firefighters and public safety.

Several also alluded to “bugs” in the county’s month-old program, bugs that could take months to work out.

Among the first to address the city’s Municipal Operations Committee was Sgt. James Owens, a 27-year veteran and steward of the department’s 15 commanding officers — who he noted had 273 years of experience among them.

“To a man, they are against this idea,” Owens said. To move dispatchers into another building would have a negative effect on the Police Department’s ability to do its job, he said.

In one chilling example, Owens described how police officers at the station attempted to negotiate with a despondent and distraught Greg Baker, who was shot by police after refusing to yield his weapon.

As the situation unfolded, information was relayed to dispatcher Susan Ellis, who — because she was in the station — immediately patched it through to police at the scene.

“There’s no way in this world that could’ve been done with regional dispatch,” Owens said.

Owens also noted that civilian dispatchers employed by the county did not have as much accountability to the residents of Bangor as the city’s own dispatchers.

“We take the position that this is a safety issue, not a dollar issue,” Owens said. As for possible savings, Owens said, “We just don’t see that as a valid exchange.”

Patrol Officer Mike DiMonico and Ellis were among the Police Department staffers who expressed deep concern about a related proposal to close the police station on Court Street to the public. The public is now allowed into the lobby, and can be “buzzed” into the safety of secured areas if the situation calls for it.

Police Chief Randy Harriman discussed pros and cons for joining the regional system, but concluded on a somewhat indecisive note.

“Personally, I’d like to wait until this time next year and see how things are running,” Harriman said.

The regional center opened on Franklin Street last month, with the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Department, the town of Hampden and the city of Brewer as members. Old Town and Orono have chosen not to join.

A resolution to continue pursuing membership in the Penobscot County program, which opened last month, will be considered by the full Bangor City Council at its meeting Monday night.

At that session, city councilors will consider taking a stand on Bangor’s participation, said City Manager Edward Barrett at Tuesday’s meeting of the city’s Municipal Operations Committee.

That position, however, will not be binding, Barrett acknowledged. Before Bangor officially can sign on, it must undergo negotiations with its police and fire unions.

City officials have been considering the regional dispatch concept for at least 18 months.

Whether Bangor — which would provide more than half of the regional facility’s workload — will sign on is a matter of concern not only to the city, but to the county.

The county facility, which now employs 11 dispatchers, would add another six dispatchers if Bangor joined. Bangor dispatchers reportedly would be given first priority for those jobs.

County officials have put off filling supervisory positions until October, in order to give Bangor dispatchers equal opportunity to apply for those posts. In order for its dispatchers to have that opportunity, however, the city would have to agree to sign up by Oct. 1.

Before the meeting, Barrett said that the city could expect to save between $50,000 and $60,000, after its startup costs were taken into account, in its first year with the regional dispatch program.

The next year, the estimated savings would increase to $120,000, with the potential for greater savings in subsequent years.

The city now employs 10 dispatchers, six of whom are assigned to the Police Department and four to the Fire Department.

If Bangor ultimately agrees to sign on, the city would retain its dispatching equipment and would serve as the regional center’s backup.

Bangor would be asked to commit to the regional service for two years at a time.

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