ROCKLAND — Put public safety chiefs in a room together with a critical problem to solve, such as the demise of the county emergency dispatch center, and they won’t leave until a viable action plan is in place.
That was the case Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 9, as Knox County fire and police chiefs, along with EMS directors and county staff, assembled in person and via Zoom for swiftly convened meeting of the Knox Regional Communications Center Executive Board to address the lack of manpower at Knox Regional Communications Center (KRCC) in Rockland.
The topic was again addressed Aug. 10, when the Knox County Budget Committee and the County Commissioners met for a regularly scheduled quarterly budget meeting.
The agenda for that meeting had been hastily amended to include a conversation a crisis at Knox RCC. And, Aug. 10, Robert Coombs, a supervisor at Knox RCC, told the commissioners and others that the call center would have to temporarily close, and alternative emergency communications plan implemented.
That news was met with frustration and concern about the weakened state of Knox County’s emergency response network.
Knox RCC, like every other county emergency call center in Maine, is command central for all 911 calls made within municipalities, islands and unorganized territories.
The center falls under the purview of county administration, and is funded by all property taxpayers in Knox County. The county 911 emergency response system has been in place since 2001, gradually adding all of Knox County municipalities to the network, and centralizing emergency dispatch.
The system has worked to the benefit of member municipalities over the decades, but there has always been a need for more dispatchers (PenbayPilot.com has published two stories, one in 2015 and another in 2019 with the focus on the need for more dispatchers), and the recent exodus of many of them now has landed the system in its own state of emergency.
At issue are wages, failed union negotiations and work atmosphere, all factors cited repeatedly at both meetings.
“It’s pretty obvious the county has fallen behind and how do we fix that,” asked Rockland Fire Chief Chris Whytock.
Employees of Knox RCC, whose offices are in a county-owned building next to the jail, represents the basic infrastructure of public safety, and staff members at Knox RCC are the communication glue that holds the system together, binding those who are traumatized with those racing to their aid. They are the first, first responders, answering those immediate calls for help.
The reasons for their resignations are multi-factored, but the bottom line is out of 13 positions, only five are currently filled. While two new hires are expected to start work there, two seasoned employees may be leaving. And out of three supervisory positions, only one is currently filled.
The wages are lower compared to neighboring counties, and other departments around the state, including police and corrections, vie for personnel in an era shrinking employee pools, especially those skilled in emergency response.
Starting pay for dispatchers at Knox RCC is $18.75 an hour, up to $26.75 an hour for those at the top of the graded pay scale.
Last fall, and following budgetary approval, proposed Knox RCC wage ladder included an 18 percent increase in new-hire pay and a 9.5 percent increase for current employees.
The union rejected that offer, and has asked for an 18 percent increase across the board, according to conversation at the Aug. 10 meeting. However, that offer has not gone through negotiation channels, and currently the few left at Knox RCC are decertifying from their current union, the Knox RCC Association and in the process of joining the Maine Association of Police, a nonprofit that serves as a bargaining agent for its members.
At the meetings, complaints about the working environment and days off were also cited.
Currently, those who are left holding the fort are working 12-hour shifts, sometimes for 27 consecutive days.
On the flip side, there was the acknowledgement that some have worked so long to fill in the coverage gaps that they earned overtime; one person, as cited at both meetings, earned $172,000 last year for all hours worked.
It is, said Knox County Commissioner Sharyn Pohlman, “a perfect public safety storm.”
The situation has resulted in the “closure” of KRCC in two weeks for at least a month.
The definition of closure, however, has yet to be clarified, and County Administrator Andrew Hart is working with Waldo County administration, and the state, to outline the parameters.
This could mean that Knox RCC will cease dispatching fire, police and EMS to 911 calls, but those 911 calls will be routed first through Waldo County Regional Communications Center (WCRCC), in Belfast. That solution depends on whether there are enough employees at Knox RCC to handle the calls.
Knox County has an existing back-up agreement with Waldo County, said Hart, on Aug. 11. This was employed in 2011, when Knox County offices moved over to the Park Street location. The Knox 911 call center was temporarily routed through Waldo County, and some Knox County dispatchers traveled to work in Belfast.
While the Waldo County Commissioners have yet to formally approve communications assistance to Knox County, the talks for getting the system underway have been productive, said Hart.
Yet, there are obstacles: The level of detail provided to Knox County first responders that are on the road in fire trucks, ambulances and police cars will not be as robust, and the information passed along to them will be abbreviated. For instance, the current RCC communications often are updated status reports between fire chiefs and EMS with call center personnel. Emergency responders depend on those communications to prepare better for their arrival at any eventuality.
Then there are the computer, or CAD systems, that are not synchronized. That involves work by both counties engaging their technology personnel to integrate the systems, if they can be integrated.
And, Knox County will have to pay Waldo County for helping out its neighboring county, especially given that Waldo County may need to hire another staff member of its own to handle the extra 911 calls. Compensation to Waldo County has yet to be negotiated and Waldo County Commissioners are to review the numbers this week, said Hart.
Still, the Knox County Commissioners endorsed, albeit without a formal vote, a plan of action at their Aug. 10 meeting that includes contracting with WCRCC for its services. There is money in the Knox RCC budget that would be going toward paying wages of the now-nonexistent personnel; instead, it can be used for contracting with Waldo County. The amount left in the budgetary line has yet to be determined.
“Our responsibility to constituents, even if means some tax increase, is that we are providing public safety,” said Pohlman, Aug. 10.
Hart said Aug. 11 that his next steps involve conversations with the Maine Emergency Communications Bureau and Waldo County Commissioners. Amber Christie, the county’s new Human Resources manager, is reaching out to the current five employees to understand their positions.
The Emergency Services Communication Bureau is the state agency responsible for 9-1-1 in Maine, and Hart is determining what oversight that agency has over Knox RCC.
“We’re trying to figure out next steps,” said Hart, adding that the Commissioners may have an emergency meeting, perhaps with legal counsel.
Coombs said Aug. 10 that Knox RCC would need to close without staff.
“If we can get people, and it’s a big if, if we can get people, we will initially start as a dispatch center to service law enforcement and fire,” he said.
That will allow time for people to be trained.
“Once we stabilize, we’ll entertain 911 again,” he said.
At the Aug. 10 budgetary meeting, the Commissioners pledged to incorporate a closer look at how public safety jobs are structured, with benefits and work schedules, as well as wages. With Thomaston Police Chief Tim Hoppe in the room, the commissioners cited his overhaul of the Thomaston Police Department’s employment system, which resulted in a full complement of patrollers and officers.
“Money isn’t everything,” was one common refrain articulated at both the Wednesday and Thursday. “It’s the work environment and family time, too.”
This goes for the Knox RCC, as well as corrections and Sheriff’s Office. Currently, there are five vacancies at the S.O, and 11 at Corrections.
It is not a new problem, and one that nationwide is plaguing education and healthcare industries, and the service sector.
The Midcoast has its own contributing factors: pricey, and even nonexistent, real estate and rental properties, competing job opportunities with higher wages elsewhere in the state, and an aging population.
But Knox RCC has more issues, and it directly affects public safety and public health. Emergency response leaders in the counties are demanding change.
“Something has to change,” said Whytock. “Something has to be done. Let’s find something that works and get things rolling. We don’t have time to sit back and wait for policies to get it into the works. If people aren’t in the seats, behind these wheels or in firehouses to respond to calls, we’ve got nothing. This affects everybody in Knox County.”
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