The Somerset County Courthouse in Skowhegan is pictured in a file photo from November 2021. Credit: Valerie Royzman / BDN

The soon-to-be obsolete dispatch system that Somerset County and three police departments use is being replaced, but at a cost of $650,000.

The county has relied on its current system, called IMC Suite, for the last 18 to 20 years, said Michael Smith, director for the Somerset Regional Communications Center and Somerset County Emergency Management Agency.

The system has come under new ownership several times in recent years, which has raised red flags, he said. The current owner, public safety software company CentralSquare, will maintain the old platform for the next two years, but new features and upgrades are not expected, he said.

Because the current system is no longer feasible, Somerset County and police departments in Fairfield, Pittsfield and Skowhegan hope to transition to CentralSquare’s Public Safety Pro Suite system, a much more sophisticated program, Smith said. CentralSquare’s products are used widely across the country, but this would be the first implemented in Maine, he said. Last year, the dispatch system logged 94,000 calls for service, Smith said. That includes emergency and non-emergency calls, along with calls for 17 municipalities in Kennebec County.

A sign outside the Somerset County Courthouse in Skowhegan, pictured in November 2021, lists the agencies housed in the building. Credit: Valerie Royzman / BDN

Once a contract is signed — which Smith anticipates will happen in July — converting data from one system to another and training personnel will take 18-24 months. The three towns with their own police departments are expected to chip in about $100,000 each, while the county will cover about $350,000.

Although the new system is a significant expense, Somerset County and the other agencies wanted to be proactive now rather than reactive down the line, Smith said.

Somerset County commissioners recently voted to allocate $175,000 to the project, which still needs to go before the budget committee, he said. The remaining amount would have to be committed in the next year’s budget.

The cost to each department will depend on license fees, along with training, implementation and transition support depending on the agency’s needs, Smith and several police chiefs said. An agency may choose to select certain features, such as those related to scheduling and administrative records, that may vary their share of the total cost.

The county’s communications center and information technology departments began talking about a new system last summer. In mid-December, the two groups, the sheriff’s office and three law enforcement agencies participated in a demonstration session to better understand CentralSquare’s Pro Suite system, Smith said.

They decided in January to move ahead with that system, he said.

The Pro Suite system will serve as a hub of information and historical database for county departments and law enforcement agencies, Smith said. They’ll also track the 25 fire departments across the county and ambulance services, although the fire departments use a separate reporting system.

The ability in the new system to narrow where calls are coming from will help the police department focus its resources and time on a particular area, Skowhegan Police Chief David Bucknam said. Officers will have a better chance of preventing something like car burglaries and catching those responsible with the mapping features, he said.

The upgraded dispatch system also has an app that officers can access on their cellphones. When officers arrive at an incident, they can use a voice recorder to take notes for their police reports, which can be added to later, Bucknam said. Officers can also capture photos and quickly upload them without having to drive back to the police station.

The Pittsfield Municipal Building, pictured in April 2020. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

“This speeds up the process, saves time on reporting and saves taxpayers money in the long run,” he said. “Officers are out there patrolling and not in the office filing reports.”

CentralSquare will maintain and update the dispatch system consistently, meaning it won’t be necessary for police departments to take phones, laptops and other technology to an IT department for updates, Bucknam said.

Skowhegan is expected to contribute somewhere between $100,000 to $120,000, Bucknam said.

“Until I see what the quote breakdown is, I’m not even going to speculate what I believe that the cost sharing will look like,” said Skowhegan Town Manager Christine Almand, adding that she is waiting on information to better understand the costs associated with a new system.

In February, the Skowhegan Board of Selectmen committed $55,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds to the dispatch system project, she said.

Transitioning to the new system will likely cost Fairfield close to $100,000, Police Chief Tom Gould said. Agencies have agreed on a product; now they want to lock in the cost before prices increase, he said.

Town councilors voted last week to allocate $50,000 for the first phase of the project.

“As far as Fairfield’s portion of the costs, we have not been fully staffed and have some funds that are expected to remain unused from the current budget year,” Gould said. “I have asked to make the first payment out of these unexpended funds once we have a formal quote available.”

Pittsfield police vehicles parked at the Municipal Building in April 2020. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

The municipalities involved hope the county will pick up the lion’s share of the cost, Fairfield Town Manager Michelle Flewelling said.

Pittsfield town councilors allocated ARPA funds to several items at a meeting last week, but they stopped short of approving a request for $100,000 for the dispatch system.

“It doesn’t pass the common sense test,” Mayor Michael Cianchette said, and other councilors agreed that they wanted to hear the county’s justification for the cost. Town Manager Kathryn Ruth wondered if the county can legally require the town to cover such a significant expense.

Pittsfield Police Chief Harold “Pete” Bickmore has been on medical leave and unavailable to participate in much of the discussion about the new dispatch system.

The sheriff and communications center director are expected to attend the next Pittsfield Town Council meeting April 5 to explain the project in greater detail.