SCHERERVILLE | Seven months on the job, and Brian Hitchcock is still selling E-911 consolidation to a skeptical public.
"I'm the only one in Lake County who knows what happens after consolidation," said Hitchcock who has been involved in three such consolidations during 31 years of experience in military and public safety communications that includes directing a communications network for 12 public safety agencies in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin.
"I see the advantages, a faster and more closely supervised service. We have to train the public that if they need police or fire service, they dial 911," Hitchcock, executive director of the county E-911 service, told the Lake County Advancement Committee, a group of business and political leaders.
But getting Lake County's political leaders to follow a mandate to merge the current police and fire dispatch services for 17 towns, cities and county government has bogged down repeatedly during the five years before he arrived.
Crown Point, Dyer, East Chicago, Griffith, Hammond, Hobart, Lake Station, Merrillville, Munster, New Chicago,Whiting and county officials have signed or are in the final stages of signing an interlocal agreement to make consolidation a reality.
He and other county officials are still engaged in bringing Cedar Lake, Gary, Highland, Lowell, St. John and Schererville into the fold.
Hitchcock was asked if E-911 will be up and running by the Dec. 31 state deadline. He admitted, "We are taking a three-year project and crunching it down to one year. If we can't make the deadline, we will be within months of doing it."
Asked if Lake County will lose millions of dollars in state funds if too many communities remain out, he said, "I don't think they will punish the whole county."
Hitchcock said he is sure some communities are balking at the loss of control over their public safety channels. Some in the audience wondered whether the new service will be as reliable as their local dispatchers, since the county will only employ about 100 of the approximately 170 now on the job.
Hitchcock said current dispatchers will be given the opportunity to apply for the new jobs and their experience will be valued.
He said the county at large will be gaining more than $11 million in state-of-the-art communications infrastructure that will more efficiently handle simultaneous police conversations now being carried on 57 separate radio channels to permit different departments to communicate more easily and will cover 97 percent of the county.
He said the new county dispatchers will have better training and better computer assistance in locating callers and asking the crucial questions that will help police and firefighters respond more quickly. They will also have a countywide database of all wanted criminals at their fingertips.
Hitchcock said his hardest job isn't putting the system online, but getting the staff to work together.
"We have to take 18 different cultures and slam them into the same room. Dispatchers are deathly afraid of consolidation. It will take a year to a year and a half to work through this," Hitchcock said. "It's all about teamwork."