If a student is talking with a University of Maine Police Department officer, it’s likely because he or she was being too loud in a dorm room, got caught speeding on Rangeley Road or got busted with a six-pack of Woodchuck Hard Cider.
Patrick Vaillancourt, a second-year horticulture student, talks with UMPD officers almost every day, but not because he’s a troublemaker.
Vaillancourt spends so much time with the boys in blue because he works as a UMPD Public Safety Communications Coordinator — a position that is rarely held by UMaine students.
‘It’s been part of my life for a while’
Vaillancourt says that his interest in law enforcement goes back to when he was a young boy.
“Since I’ve been a little kid, I’ve always listened to the scanner with my grandmother,” he said. “It’s been kind of a family affair. You’ll never see a family video without the scanner going in the background, so it’s been part of my life for a while.”
Vaillancourt defines a scanner as “something that you program your local law enforcement, fire [department], EMS and whatnot frequencies into it, and you can listen to all their radio traffic, as long as the channels aren’t scrambled.”
Growing up in Van Buren, a small town in the northern half of Aroostook County that is home to just over 2,000 people, Vaillancourt spent much of his time working, participating in outdoor activities or listening to a scanner, whether it was his or his grandmother Simone Vaillancourt’s, whom he says was formative in his scanner-listening hobby.
“I’ll never forget this one time, we had a big storm and there were electrical lines down in the road, so they called the fire department and I heard it on the scanner,” Vaillancourt said. “So I called my mémère [French for “grandmother”] and said, ‘Did you hear it?’ [She responded,] ‘Yeah, upper Keegan. Wanna go? Pick me up in 5 minutes.’
“So I go down to her apartment, she’s already on the front porch with her hat on, bottle of water and a spotlight, ready to go. She’d know about a fire before it happens, so I learn from the best.”
‘That’s an advantage I can provide to you guys’
When Vaillancourt arrived at UMaine, he soon became interested in potentially working for UMPD. He said he would often visit the station and ask about available work.
“It just so happened that a position became open at the end of last year, [in the] springtime, so I applied for it, went through the motions and here we are,” he said.
Although he felt he was reasonably qualified for the job, he knew UMPD might have reservations about hiring a student for a position that is not traditionally held by students.
“When I first put my application in, I didn’t really think much of it,” Vaillancourt said. “I thought there would be people [who would be] much more experienced. Then I took the entrance exam, passed that, and they said, ‘We’d like to have you for an interview.’
“OK, so maybe this is my chance to tell them, ‘Listen, I’m a student, I know what’s going on because I may not be involved in these … whatever happens on campus, but I’m around students. I hear what’s going on, I talk to kids.’ So I said, ‘That’s an advantage I can provide to you guys.’”
Vaillancourt’s employment has worked out well for UMPD, according to Public Safety Communications Supervisor Chip McInnis.
“He certainly displays the qualities that we look for [in] someone who’s going to be in a trusted position,” McInnis said. “He seems to be knowledgeable about the industry, and he displays great potential to be a quality dispatcher.”
When asked why students tend not to work for UMPD, Vaillancourt said most students “wouldn’t think of a job like that,” adding that they typically “aren’t the fondest of ‘the 5-0.’
“It’s a very unique situation,” he said. “I don’t think they’ve ever really hired a student before, so obviously there are sensitive topics within that.”
When Vaillancourt first started to work for UMPD, he trained by listening to phone calls, learning what information to ask for and learning about other general duties associated with his position.
“As I progressed, I just started doing it more and more on my own,” he said. “I got into the more advanced stuff, like getting access to be able to run criminal histories on traffic stops, things like that.”
Some of Vaillancourt’s other duties include dispatching officers, gun check-ins and taking theft reports.
“On any given day, it can be a number of things,” he said. “It’s kind of a mixed bag, which makes it interesting, you know? You never know what’s coming up the pipe next.”
The contrast between police activity in Orono and that in Van Buren is noticeable, Vaillancourt says.
“At home, you may go for 2 hours with nothing on the scanner, but over here, it’s rare if you go 2 minutes, and we’re only in Bangor, Maine,” he said. “Especially with [Orono] being a college town, there’s always the potential for unique calls — more raucous events, if you will.
“That’s what makes it pretty interesting: the amount of stupid college kids.”
‘Hmm, wow! Wasn’t expecting that.’
Some students might think it would be intimidating to work with police officers, but Vaillancourt insists UMPD is “just like any other work place.”
“[The officers] are our co-workers, just like the other dispatchers are,” he said. “We work with the officers very closely. They can’t do their job without us and then vice versa, so it’s all interconnected.
“I’ve enjoyed it a lot. It’s definitely a different experience,” he continued. “People ask you, ‘So you work at the police station? What’s your major? Oh, horticulture?’ And they’re like, ‘That has nothing to do with it.’ It’s just something that’s always [been] very interesting to me.”
Most of the information Vaillancourt hears while on the job is confidential, but he still gains entertaining insight about what his peers, some of whom he knows personally, are up to.
“[There are] certain people that you know that maybe you didn’t think certain things about and didn’t know, then all of a sudden, over the radio, an officer asks you to check this person’s history and whatnot, and you’re like, ‘Hmm, wow! Wasn’t expecting that,’” he said.
“Obviously it’s confidential and you can’t say anything, but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep it in your own mind. That doesn’t mean you don’t file that in your memory bank if you come into contact with this person in a non-work-related situation.”
The job has also made him question the intelligence of some students.
“It gets you thinking, if you’re going to do that, why would you do it there or why would you do it at that time, you know?” Vaillancourt said. “Come on, don’t be [dumb] like that.”
Although he’d rather spend the rest of his working life mowing intricate patterns on crabgrass-free yards than keeping criminals off the streets, Vaillancourt says the skills he has gained working for UMPD will not go to waste.
“I may not be in law enforcement, but it’s still good to be quick-thinking, be on your feet, to have those communication skills,” he said. “I think those will carry over into whatever business I do go into, so nothing’s lost there.”
One of the aspects of the job that will have use outside of UMPD for Vaillancourt is the knowledge he has gained about the meaning of certain pieces of radio chatter.
“Now that I’m aware of both sides of it, calling in what they’re going to ask for or someone giving you the information and how you’re putting it into the system, it gives you a whole new understanding of [it],” he said. “Knowing all the codes they talk about, how they’re dispatching an officer to different calls, it’s definitely different because you’re in it every day.”
Wherever life takes him and whatever line of work Vaillancourt ends up in, this newfound competence with law enforcement radio activity should prove most useful during one of his many weekend trips home to Van Buren. Perhaps now he can check the scanner, call his mémère and tell her something she doesn’t already know.