PARIS — While crashing and banging and driving rain created a cacophony outside, inside, where the scanner sits, it is eerily quiet.
It is 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 31.
As unusually strong thunderstorms roll through the region, sensible folks hunker down indoors and out of the turmoil.
Out of the silence comes radio traffic.
“Oxford County RCC has been hit by lightening, dispatch is down, dispatch is down.”
And then, bit by bit, the scanner starts to come alive.
But what is transmitting is not dispatch but individual fire departments and rescue, communicating with each other, noting they are gathering at their respective stations in case a call comes in.
It is now 8 p.m. and a scratchy but audible voice comes over the air. “This is Oxford County RCC Mobile Command … .”
With careful precision, the mobile command contacts fire chiefs throughout the county to ensure the communication signal is loud and clear. Eventually tones start to emit from the scanner. A Signal 1000 is issued alerting all responders not to tie up the airways with anything other than emergency traffic. The signal was still in place Friday morning “until further notice.”
Things begin to sound a bit more normal.
Bang! Building shook
“There was a bright flash and a very loud clap and everything went black.”
So recalls OCRCC shift supervisor Cammie Sprague.
“All the alarms went off,” she continues, “they were all fried.”
The alarms she refers to are those in the sheriff’s office, county jail, county courthouse and dispatch.
Because of the alarms and the smell of smoke, Sprague says she sent her team – dispatchers Shawna Emery and Doug Fillebrown – outside. “Fortunately there were two deputies here – Sgt. Chris Davis and Deputy Mike Fitzmorris – and they let them in to the sheriff’s office out of the rain.”
Sprague stayed at dispatch.
“When everything went black,” she continues referring to the computer-assisted dispatch or CAD system, not the lights as emergency lighting came on as soon as the power went, “we immediately went to cellphones.”
Her first call, she says, was to OCRCC Director James Miclon and her second to OCRCC Deputy Director Geff Inman.
She then immediately called the state police dispatch center in Gray to let them know Oxford was down and all 911 calls would be coming to them. Fillebrown, who also dispatches for Gray, was due to start his Gray shift at 11 p.m. that night.
“Gray told him he could stay as long as he was needed,” notes Inman, “they were very helpful.”
So the other two dispatchers and Sprague grabbed their “go-bags,” which contain laptops, cellphones, pens and paper and a three-ring binder containing the contact numbers of every agency in the county and state and prepared to do things the “old way.”
In the meantime, Inman went directly to the county Mobile Communications Unit and started dispatching from there. His first call, he says, was to the first fire chief on his contact list, Norway Fire Department Chief Dennis Yates.
“I told Dennis that OCRCC had been hit by lightening and might be on fire as smoke could be smelled,” he recalls with bleary eyes, the next day. “I told him I needed Norway, Paris and Oxford to respond.”
Yates proceeded to contact members of his department, including NFD dispatcher Bonnie Seames, as well as the other two fire departments. Trucks rolled.
It wasn’t until the next day, says Inman, that he found out Yates wasn’t even in the state of Maine but in Connecticut when he answered the phone. “He never told me he was out of state, he just took care of it.”
Sprague said the phones kept going in and out so some 911 calls did come through to Oxford. Once the fire department had cleared the dispatch center, she proceeded to staff the phone.
One dispatcher would answer the 911 call and the other relay the information over a cellphone to Inman in the mobile unit who then toned out whatever was needed, be it fire, rescue or law enforcement.
Fortunately, it was a relatively quiet night.
There was, however, a 911 call where the call taker had to instruct the caller on how to administer CPR.
Meanwhile, fire department personnel carefully checked every inch of the rest of the buildings to verify the alarms were because of the lightening hit and there was no fire.
The assumption is the lightening hit the tower right behind the building but no one is sure how it traveled into the building and killed the equipment.
Also contacted at 7:30 p.m. were EMA Director Allyson Hill and Deputy Director Teresa Glick.
They responded to the complex from their respective homes.
Hill contacted Bob Gould, the Command Unit Leader who, along with Inman, are state trained and certified as communications specialists.
Another responder, from Gray – Rick Davol – radioed in a bit after 7:30 p.m. that “radio service was on its way.” Davol’s company – Communications Consulting Service – services the county’s communication system and he began to immediately assess and work on the system.
Also immediately responding was the county IT expert Al Larrivee.
Both were still assessing the problems at mid-morning the following day. In fact, almost everyone from the night before was still working.
As Sprague says goodbye and heads out to take over dispatching in the mobile unit until another dispatcher arrives, Inman points out what an incredible team they have.
“She’s amazing but she’s not the only one. We have 14 dispatchers and every single one has pitched in and picked up shifts.”
While all the response may sound heroic, it was actually part of a well developed, often trained for plan that began 10 years ago, says EMA’s Hill.
“We have Homeland Security money we have spent on the backup system,” she explains.
“We have worked for 10 years to build up our equipment, create a plan and train everyone,” adds Glick.
And while something like this has never happened before, the preparation paid off. The transition to the mobile unit went smoothly and the back up plans went into place without a hitch.
Three years ago, the pair explains, they had to evacuate the dispatch center because of a chemical reaction that would affect the employees, not the system.
“That was the impetus for getting an alternate location off the property,” says Glick.
Part of the plan involves contacting surrounding counties for assistance in dispatching. Another is having local fire departments use their town channels and in-house dispatchers. In fact, Paris Fire Department’s dispatcher had to dispatch Paris Police to a call.
Departments were on high alert anyway, because at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, June 1, the Storm Prediction Center in Oklahoma issued an alert for extremely severe thunderstorms which, they say, is unusual.
Ham radio operators assisted limiting their users to emergency traffic only, so they could assist with emergency “tone-outs” of fire and rescue.
Business as usual
Thanks to years of training, there are no hiccups in the transition from normal dispatching to mobile unit dispatching although the dispatchers have to juggle more, communicating between the OCRCC 911 call intake and the mobile dispatching unit.
Regardless of who is doing what where, stresses Inman, “If you call 911 in this state someone will answer.” That is the case under normal circumstances, he explains.
For example, he explains, say there’s a crash and multiple people call 911. “If our lines are tied up and once we had 13 calls all at once for the same incident, calls automatically shift from OCRCC to Gray. There are 26 PSAPs (Public Safety Answering Points) in the state.”
So, in theory, a 911 call could automatically bounce in a domino pattern until it hits a PSAP that can answer. Then, say a caller in Oxford gets answered by a PSAP in Augusta, the dispatcher will immediately contact Oxford County to dispatch the necessary response. It is only the 911 lines that could be tied up, not the remaining lines or dispatchers.
Normally, Inman points out, “There is a 98 percent chance when dialing 911 that the phone will be answered within 10 seconds by OCRCC. The most we have answered in one minute was 13 calls.”
“We have phenomenal, well-trained dispatchers.”
Ironically, on May 18 OCRCC did a functional radio test with its northern fire departments to ascertain which departments it could reach directly without bouncing off mountain top repeaters, notes Hill. They did this in case a tower went down.
There are towers on Spruce Mountain in Woodstock, Pleasant Mountain in Bridgton, Peaked Mountain in Hiram, Streaked Mountain in Buckfield and Black Mountain in Rumford, as well as the tower at the OCRCC.
Each tower has a repeater. Consequently the microwave signal from the OCRCC tower can go to Streaked and the repeater then pushes it to Pleasant; or it can go to Spruce and “bounce” to Black; or to Streaked and bounce to Peaked, etc.
Further, Oxford has done training with other counties.
PACE Ambulance Director Robert Hand said the loss of the main dispatching ability did “not really have any effect [on PACE].
“I heard Norway Fire talking about a potential structure fire at RCC and texted every crew member (PACE has automatic mass text ability) and told them to turn their radios to scan.”
Normally PACE staff have their radios set to the PACE channels for being toned out, blocking other radio traffic.
“I also sent a crew to the RCC in case there was a fire. We didn’t miss any calls,” Hand continues.
“Dwight Corning, head of security at [Stephens Memorial Hospital], manned the registration desk at the hospital in case someone called directly to PACE or SMH – that sometimes happens – and he was ready to transfer the calls to us.”
“We have practiced off-site dispatch,” Hand explains, “and it took them [OCRCC] no time to get it up and running.”
Anyone listening to a scanner could hear what seemed to be an almost synchronized response throughout the county … a sort of “telephone tree” of radio communications.
Consequently 911 callers may have had no idea there was a major issue at dispatch.
And although fire, rescue and law enforcement were aware of it, it was business as usual.
In fact, Norway Police Chief Rob Federico paid dispatchers the highest compliment for the smoothness of the transition to the mobile unit saying, “It was no big deal.”
The damage a lightening strike on Wednesday, May 31, to the Oxford County Regional Communications Center is estimated at tens of thousands of dollars, according to OCRCC Director Jim Miclon. “We keep discovering new issues every day. It’s touched just about every electronic item here, door system, radio system, CAD system, phone system, alarm systems, camera systems, printers, and even the TV’s gone.”
The county’s insurance carrier will not pay until everything is fixed and invoices paid and submitted, Miclon says.
And then, at 13:24 [1:24 p.m.] on Monday, June 3:
“Oxford County RCC Mobile Unit command has terminated.”
However, the original system is not yet back to normal. Instead, OCRCC has duplicated what is in the mobile unit in order to bring all its dispatchers back under one roof. This system will be used until all the damage is assessed and repaired, said OCRCC Deputy Director Geff Inman on Tuesday, June 6.