DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — Piscataquis County’s Emergency Management Agency director is traveling to nearly every structure fire because of outdated infrastructure and long-running problems with the county’s radio communications for emergency personnel.
“When I sit in my car because I have a repeater in it, I have two radios going, my portable and mobile radios,” Director Jaeme Duggan said. “Depending on where it is, between 50 and 70 percent of the traffic is heard by both dispatch and the fire ground [crew] — and the rest of it isn’t.
“They’ll say something in the house, and it never makes it to dispatch. Dispatch will relay traffic from the fire scene to command, and command doesn’t hear it.”
That’s why Piscataquis County is pursuing a major project to upgrade radio communications for fire and police departments, estimated to cost $5 million for the first phase. County commissioners paid an engineering consultant $27,000 for a feasibility study, which was presented in November 2021. Last month, commissioners indicated they would dedicate American Rescue Plan Act funds to the upgrades.
Those involved with the project and Communications Design Consulting Group of Barrington, New Hampshire, have been identifying tower sites throughout the county, Duggan said during a commissioners meeting on March 8.
Sites for the towers, which could be commercial or private, are based on coverage and point-to-point communication, said Normand Boucher, principal of the consulting firm.
Before the feasibility study, Boucher spent months meeting with members of area fire and police departments and toured sites around the region, including locations of about a dozen transmitters throughout Piscataquis.
Some of the radio communications problems stem from the county’s hilly and mountainous terrain.
“At this point, we think we know what the infrastructure looks like,” Boucher said, though there are unknowns, like the true cost of the project.
Commissioners won’t know the cost of the upgrades until the project goes out to bid. Boucher said it’s ready for that and asked if commissioners need funding in place first.
It would be best for the county to move forward with one bid for all the project’s components, Boucher said. Once a vendor is on board, upgrades can be phased in. There won’t be any changes to the current radio problems or outages during the upgrade, but communications should improve incrementally, he said.
Commissioners had a lengthy discussion about costs, logistics and unknown factors with Boucher, while several meeting attendees chimed in with ideas and questions. One man asked if the county is tied to the microwave system or if fiber would be a viable option.
Duggan is forming a stakeholder group to allow anyone interested in or with questions about the project to attend occasional meetings and receive updates.
Commissioners also heard from an update on the relocation of the dispatch center from the cramped conditions inside the Piscataquis County Jail in Dover-Foxcroft into the patrol and investigations division building in Guilford. The estimated $5 million for the radio communications project does not include the dispatch center.
The Piscataquis County Sheriff’s Office and the EMA have been working with Old Town-based architect Vicki Leavitt to understand what steps the project entails, Sheriff Robert Young said.
Leavitt’s proposal calls for adding lower-level showers and locker rooms and an employee break room. It also includes the addition of dispatch, office and training spaces.
The project will need to be put out to bid for an architect, Chair James White said.
The relocation of the dispatch center is a complex process, Young said. Those involved with the project needed some outside guidance on where to even begin, Duggan said.
“You had to start somewhere with a concept before you can even go to bid for an architect,” she said. “I’ve never known to bid on the concept. None of us were qualified to come up with a concept.”
Commissioners tabled the item and will meet with those overseeing the project to clarify next steps.
When department leaders gave updates at the meeting, Joshua York, head of maintenance, said the county jail is dealing with hot water issues because the coil inside the heat tank isn’t working properly.
“We have hot water,” he said. “It just doesn’t reheat as fast. Overnight it’ll regenerate itself, but during the day, the temperature will drop with more people using it obviously. Right now, they’re not in real bad shape because they don’t have as many people and it’s warmer out.”
York got a quote of more than $15,600 to address the hot water problem. At the commissioners meeting in February, York outlined repairs and upgrades needed at the jail, county courthouse and district attorney’s office. He estimated the upgrades would cost more than $1 million.