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January 3, 2012

Address mixup prompts Maine dispatch worries

Morning Sentinel

WINSLOW, Maine — A high-profile murder and suicide earlier this year in Winslow highlighted concern among police officials that emergency responders could be dispatched to wrong street addresses.

In the wake of the case, local and state authorities have said they enacted new protocols to minimize such mixups from happening again.

On the night of June 6, Sarah Gordon was gunned down by her husband, Nathaniel Gordon, just outside their house at 4 Marie St. in Winslow, police said. Nathaniel Gordon drove away from the scene, and he shot himself later that night after being chased by Maine State Police on Interstate 95 in Gray, police said.

Police were initially dispatched to the wrong address: Murray Lane instead of Marie Street.

Sarah Gordon initially called 911 on a cellphone and her call — like all cellphone 911 calls made in the area — was picked up by the Central Maine Regional Communications Center in Augusta. A dispatcher took her information and transferred the call to the dispatch center in Waterville.

At some point, one of the dispatchers apparently misheard the address and Winslow police were sent to Murray Lane, when the shooting was on Marie Street.

In response to an open records request by the Morning Sentinel, the Maine Department of Public Safety in August released written transcripts of the 911 calls involving shooting. While the transcripts shed new light on the frantic calls made to police by Sarah Gordon and her neighbors, the documents did not answer the fundamental question of why police initially were dispatched to the wrong address.

The department blacked out relevant portions of the transcript in which the address is mentioned. Public safety officials declined to make that information available, citing state law as prohibiting the release of confidential information, even though the street name was already made public by police officials.

Since the Winslow case, both the Waterville and Augusta dispatch centers adopted policies that street names in emergency calls had to be spelled back clearly to avoid confusion.

But in August, another address mixup that occurred during a 911 call created fresh concerns about the protocol.

In that case, the Central Maine Regional Communications Center in Augusta received a 911 call from a woman who reported chest pains and trouble breathing. The medical emergency call was transferred to a dispatcher in Waterville, who was told by the Augusta dispatcher that the caller was on Pare Street. When the Waterville dispatcher was connected, however, the caller calmly replied that, no, she was not on Pare Street, but Paris Street. She spelled Paris out to the dispatcher.

Emergency responders were not delayed by the brief mix-up and took the woman from Paris Street to Inland Hospital. Pare and Paris streets are less than a third of a mile from each other.

Waterville Police Chief Joseph Massey said the incident was yet another reminder of how mixups are more apt to happen as a result of the state's 911 call center consolidation.

Under the consolidation, all 911 calls made on cellphones in the Waterville area must first go to the Augusta dispatch center, which then transfers the call to dispatchers in Waterville.

Land-line 911 calls are taken first by the Somerset County dispatch center.

"Putting that additional step in the emergency process presents opportunities to make mistakes," Massey said.

Massey has warned that the consolidation has degraded emergency services, leading to a loss of available technology, institutional memory and local knowledge of the area to aid police responses.

Massey concedes that mistakes will happen and that they are rare, but he said public safety officials should try to minimize them as much as possible.

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