oxford, Maine

Cordwell sounds his last tones
as Oxford County dispatcher

by A.M. Sheehan, Editor Advertiser Democrat July 6, 2017

PARIS — Twenty-eight years ago county dispatch was a one-man band.

It was located in the control room at the county jail. And while the jail control officer might help when she had time, it was pretty much up to one person to handle emergency calls and send fire, rescue or law enforcement to respond.

Today, there’s a three- or four-person team on each shift.

Steven Cordwell, 66, of Oxford remembers the “old days” well.

Steve Cordwell retires
Dispatcher Steve Cordwell

Growing up in the Oxford Hills, Cordwell joined the Oxford Fire Department (OFD) in 1977 as a volunteer and got his first aid license. He served the then-Oxford-Otisfield Rescue, which housed its rigs in the Oxford fire barn. He worked for the rescue service for five years, he says, as a licensed EMT and, for a few years, was elected chief of the squad.

“In 1982 I was working at Robinson’s woolen mill [Robinson Manufacturing Company] and I hurt my back and had to go out [of work],” says the soft-spoken gentle man. “After surgery it took forever to heal. I couldn’t lift patients anymore so I went to OFD and dispatched from the station.”

His dad and uncle owned and operated Cordwell’s Market on Winter Street in Norway and his uncle decided to retire around this time, says Cordwell, noting it was around 1985. “I bought my uncle’s half and took over, working with my dad. After four years we couldn’t do it anymore so we closed.

“We closed on New Year’s 1989 and I came here.”

He said he had been dispatching for OFD so it wasn’t completely new to him.

From that January through October he worked as a part-time corrections officer and part-time dispatcher. “I would be working at the jail and the dispatcher would need a break so I would cover,” he explains.

In October he was hired as a permanent full-time employee.

“Back then people called a seven-digit number,” he recalls. “You would write it [the information] on paper, go to a long radio and ‘tone out’ fire or rescue or radio law enforcement. Then you had to type it in to an activity log. Sometimes that would take a couple of hours.”

At the time, he says, they didn’t cover the northern part of the county, including Rumford and Mexico. They also had a teletype system over which they would get information from Augusta. The department was also under the sheriff at the time. Today it is an independent department reporting to the county commissioners.

His first supervisor, he recalls, was Kathy McAllister and then he worked for Judy Knight when she took over in the mid-’90s. In 2006, current Director James Miclon came on board and by 1998, Cordwell says, they had grown to two dispatchers in the crowded jail control room.

In 1999, he says, they moved into the current building. Around 2008, he thinks, Emergency Medical Dispatch (EMD) was added to the Spillman Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD).

“I had taken an EMD class back in 1992, when they were trying to get it in the county but we didn’t use it in our dispatch until after Jimmy [Miclon] came on board.”

He says he began working nights but went to days in 1994 or ’95 and has stayed on days ever since. They now have four stations and three dispatchers on during the day – a call taker (who answers 911 calls), a fire/rescue dispatcher and a law enforcement dispatch. There are four dispatchers on from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m., which is considered the busiest time.

“We rotate [stations] every day.” What does he like best?

“I’m not a call taker!” He takes calls, of course, but it is his least favorite.

“I like fire/rescue over law because of my fire/rescue background.”

He says he keeps a lot of information in his head [instead of on lists] and this helps him when a responder might not key the mike in time to catch his first words which are often the name of the town he is responding with. So it helps to recognize voices or equipment numbers, he says.

Calls

Ironically, one of his worst calls, he says, just happened. It was the police boat crash on the Sebago River in Fryeburg, which ultimately cost 20-year-old Fryeburg Officer Nathan Desjardins his life.

“I was on law desk that day and Candy was call taker … she’s still struggling with it.”

He has had a few “best” calls but he brushes them off.

“You get an award but you don’t do much [for it].” What he means is, he just does his job. He cites a Buckfield call where “a young child around 6 or 7 called 911 for his father who was unconscious … all I did was keep the child calm and get directions … they gave me a certificate … I didn’t do that much … but the child and his dad were there [when he got the certificate] and that’s a good thing.”

He has, he says, “delivered” one baby. “They tell me I have one [delivery] but [again] I don’t think I did much there … I just told the husband to get his wife off the toilet.”

He notes how “in this county things happen in threes all at once!”

Retirement

He’s not sure what he will do in retirement, he says. “I’m not much of a hobbyist. My wife says I sit in front of the computer too much. She says I’m going to exercise more.”

He indicates that he will most likely be doing what she says with regard to exercising.

“I’ll do stuff around the yard, maybe go to more OFD calls and maybe dispatch for them more.” He is the fire prevention and safety officer for OFD.

“We might try some day trips,” he muses, “and go out to eat with my wife, spend time with my grandson.”

He has a son here and a daughter in Boston, he says.

Is he glad he chose this career? “Oh yes! There’s a lot to it … some good, some bad. I think working with the fire department prepares you for what you hear dispatching.

“Years ago they used to say dispatchers had a life [longevity] of seven or eight years before they burn out. Now some make it 20 years, but eventually it comes to an end. I’ve reached my Social Security max years so we’ll see.”

Miclon calls Cordwell “outstanding to work with and supervise over the years.”

“He is an excellent employee. He did a lot behind the scenes in the early years with Spillman [CAD system], there was a big plus in that.”

Dispatcher Candice Jack says, “He’s like a grampa, loving and kind and always there for us.”

“He is a good mentor to many of the staff,” adds Miclon, “he going to be really missed. Any time he wants to come back part-time, I would take him back in a minute.”