Knox County works to rebuild 911 call center, disillusioned towns speak up, public safety chiefs warily regard temporary fix

Fri, 08/18/2023 - 11:30am

    ROCKLAND — A salvage attempt is underway to rebuild the deflated Knox County Regional Communications Center, a 911 call center for the 18 municipalities and islands that comprise the county, plus Lincolnville just over the Waldo County line.

    On Monday, Aug. 21, staff at Waldo County Regional Communications Center will begin answering 911 calls made by those in Knox County, and then will relay notifications to staff at Knox Regional Communications Center (KRCC) in Rockland. The Knox operators, in turn, will dispatch fire, police and EMS to people calling for help.

    The current system has call center staff answering 911 calls and then dispatching first responders to incidents, while often maintaining contact with both the caller and the fire, EMS and police heading to the scene.

    It was a functioning system on which public safety has relied without a lot of worry until last week, when became apparent that the normal 13-member KRCC crew had shrunk to just five members, and as of this week, may even diminish to four. 

    To have a 911 system is place is required per state statute, which mandates that if a municipality has no public safety answering point it, “shall contract with an entity that does have a public safety answering point, which may be the department, for receiving 9-1-1 calls and, as appropriate, directly dispatching emergency services or, through transfer routing or relay routing, passing 9-1-1 calls to public or private safety agencies that dispatch emergency services.”

    All 911 calls from landlines and cell phones must be answered by call center staff members who are certified through training and testing. If municipalities with an answering point do not enter into an agreement, the state will take over and charge for the service. 

    Waldo County Commissioners and Waldo County RCC agreed to help Knox County through its personnel crisis. What the Waldo County arrangement will cost Knox County taxpayers has yet to be determined.

    “The numbers are still being finalized for the contract we expect to sign at our 10 a.m. Monday meeting,” said Knox County Commissioner Ed Glaser, Thursday afternoon, Aug. 17. That meeting has is scheduled for Aug. 21 at 10 a.m., at the Knox County offices at the Knox County Courthouse, 62 Union Street in Rockland. It can be watched via live-stream here. 
    Unofficial Waldo County contract numbers have been cited as $114,000 for August through January and $168,000 for next January to June.
    Glaser, who is acting as the Commissioner’s spokesperson for the KRCC situation, said Aug. 18 that the county is being over overwhelmed over the last few days by people interested in working for the county dispatch.
    “I’m incredibly hopeful with the kind of people who are lining up,” he said.
    He said that by Monday, the commissioners would have in hand an up-to-date financial figures for what had been budgeted for KRCC, what has been spent so far this fiscal year, and what remains in the bank. The latter is expected to be used to cover the contractual cost with Waldo County.
    Glaser said there will be two parts to the Waldo County contract, one for technology and the other for labor.
    The total KRCC communications line in the county’s 2023 $6.7 million budget is $1.5 million, with $1.3 million of that line appropriated for KRCC personnel.
    Meanwhile, Knox County town managers are keeping a close eye on the crisis, and evolving remedies.
    “I know that all the officials in Camden, including the police and fire chief and members of the Select Board, are stunned and in disbelief that we’re in this situation right now – it’s truly unacceptable,” said Camden Town Manager Audra Caler. “This is a complete and total failure of the County to provide our residents with a basic fundamental public safety service our communities trusted them with.”
    The Camden Select Board has on its Aug. 22 regularly scheduled meeting agenda a discussion concerning KRCC.
    Rockport has not yet paid its county tax bill, due November 1, nor has it paid its dispatch fee, due September 1, said Rockport Town Manager Jon Duke.
    “Until the situation has been stabilized regarding county dispatch, I will not recommend our Select Board authorize payment in either regard,” he said. 
    The Town of Thomaston is likewise reconsidering payment with the tenuous situation.
    “Knox County is requesting per diem first responders from all of our municipalities to assist the dispatch department when many of our municipalities are struggling to fill their own positions,” said Thomaston Town Manager Kara George, Aug. 18. “This shortage of staffing should have come to everyone’s attention a long time ago before reaching this precipice. All of our municipalities pay a significant amount of taxes each year for the operation of the Knox County dispatch center. Thomaston has not paid our Knox County bill yet for dispatch services, and quite frankly, I’m not sure if it’s advisable to pay with the uncertainty that we will even have a dispatch service in the coming weeks.”
    Fire, Police and EMS chiefs also remain highly concerned and fingers are crossed that patching the system by routing calls to Belfast and then back to Rockland — or as one first responder said at a recent meeting, plugging the holes in the boat — will maintain the integrity of Knox County’s highly regarded public safety infrastructure.
    The response to emergencies by skilled firefighters, paramedics and EMTs, police and deputies depends on clear and detailed communications with 911 call center operators. Those operators are adept at talking with people in distress, while at the same time, keeping first responders on the road informed of what they are about to encounter at any incident. That vital relationship is anticipated to be diminished by the temporary reliance on Waldo County RCC acting as a secondary component in the line of communication. 

    The Knox Regional Communications Center Executive Board met again Aug. 16 to address the dilemma. For two hours, public safety leaders queried Knox County Sheriff Pat Polky, who is now tasked with overseeing the rebuild of KRCC, about the county’s plans.

    Most immediately, there is the concern about whether the four or five dispatchers left on the job will be able to cover the staffing shortfall come Monday morning.

    The executive board had proposed to the county that it temporarily employ first responder municipal staff who had volunteered to help man dispatch while a hiring effort got under way. That proposal would be structured so that the municipal employees who had volunteered to help in the effort would temporarily fill the empty chairs at KRCC, be paid by the municipality, and the the municipality would be reimbursed by the county.

    Knox County, however, chose to continue with its hiring process of new employees, and attempts to recruit former trained and certified 911 KRCC staff members back to the empty chairs, with significant per diem pay.

    New employees are required to complete paperwork at the county office in Rockland, attend training for new hires, undergo a background check and go to the jail for fingerprinting.

    At the Aug. 16 KRCC Executive Board meeting, various attendees urged Sheriff Polky to keep them apprised of developments in a daily email. Polky agreed, and as Thursday, told the various chiefs that attempts to restart contract negotiations with current staff are underway.

    He also reported a training block for emergency per diem staff was to be scheduled for Sunday, and that Knox County Human Resources Manager Amber Christie is the primary contact for anyone hoping to become employed as dispatcher.

    And, he said, the current staff roster numbered at five, with one new person undergoing training.

    “We are going to rebuild this thing,” said Polky, at the meeting.

    Commissioner Glaser reiterated Aug. 18 the County Commissioners’ pledge to place emphasis on addressing the wage structure and work environment at Knox RCC, as well as the sheriff’s office and correctional facility, the Knox County Jail.

    Caler said municipalities need to pay more attention to county government.

    “This is so serious that we’re still trying to figure out if we need to start moving forward with setting up our own dispatch centers, like we had in the early 2000s,” she said. “However, it’s hard for us to even start planning for something like this because it would necessitate the County relinquishing control that they are just not willing to give up at this point.  So we’re all in an impossibly bad situation where everyone is being expected to trust the County to fix it.”

    Caler said she has faith in municipal staff across Knox County, “particularly the municipal emergency services personnel, and I hope County officials start listening to them.”

    Town Manager Duke echoed a similar position, from both taxpayer cost and organizational function.

    “That we might not be able to rely upon our county dispatching center to simply relay the emergencies our residents are facing is a pretty dismal statement on the county’s capacity to lead and join our municipalities to confronting the challenges of this decade,” he said. “They must do better to sit at the table and help municipalities seek the solutions we all need.”

    He hopes that getting, “so close to calamity will bring officials from across the region together in recognizing how much we can accomplish together,” he said. “With the challenges we all face with volunteerism on the decline and an ever-increasing call for services we can and should build upon the excellent teamwork our fire departments show at every mutual aid call in our county.”

    Reach Editorial Director Lynda Clancy at; 207-706-6657