CROWN POINT | Lake County officials finally hired a full-time E-911 consolidation director, dispelling five years of indecision, disagreement and outright obstruction to a countywide merger.
Brian R. Hitchcock, who is expected to start as the full-time director as early as next month, must push through the purchase of millions of dollars in state-of-the-art communications hardware and software, the hiring and training of new E-911 call-takers, dispatchers and supervisors, and launch the service next year.
The state is mandating the consolidation take place by the end of next year or local departments face losing millions of dollars in state grants for public safety.
Hammond Police Chief Brian Miller, one of several public safety officials serving as an E-911 adviser for the county, said the county's consolidation probably would be a lot further along if Hitchcock had been hired at the beginning.
Tom Dabertin, a consultant for the county on E-911 matters, agrees with Miller.
"Without a doubt. Brian (Hitchcock) wrote the book on consolidated dispatch," Dabertin said. "He's been through it so many times, there is very little he doesn't know."
What Lake County didn't know about this subject when the state law first mandated it could fill volumes, Dabertin said.
"When (former) Sheriff Roy Dominguez called me into a meeting and asked me if I had seen the new law -- and wanted me to educate the municipalities on what is going to be required -- my comment was, 'You've got to be kidding,'" Dabertin said. "I didn't believe this would be an easy process."
Dabertin, a veteran municipal consultant, used his contacts to set up the first meeting June 19, 2008, with municipal police and fire chiefs. Their reaction to the sheriff's announcement of a countywide E-911 system was like a dropped call.
"We all thought the law would be overturned," Miller said. "We knew it would cost quite a bit of money, and the economy already was starting to go bad. Nobody thought this was going to fly."
Dabertin said he wasn't discouraged.
"I had worked with police chiefs for a long time. I've negotiated police contracts," he said. "I understood police officers are first and foremost trained to be skeptical."
Dabertin said he pushed forward with the project, visiting Chicago, Indianapolis and Porter County consolidated dispatch centers. He completed a 10-page preliminary report outlining the immediate steps needed to be taken.
But Dabertin said that report wasn't published and his services were "shelved, too."
Lester C. Miller, of Indianapolis-based IYP Solutions, was hired in August 2009 to take over the technical aspects of consolidation on the strength of his firm's expertise, having worked on every other E-911 consolidation in the state, including a $37 million replacement of Indianapolis' public safety communications system.
Dabertin, now on the outside looking in, said he heard Lester C. Miller present his vision of how consolidation would happen to local police and fire chiefs in January 2010, and "I heard the meeting went south."
Lester C. Miller said the chiefs were resistant at first but eventually became resigned to the state mandate.
Hammond's Chief Brian Miller said once the police chiefs were on board, they labored through much of 2012 sifting the evidence and concluding the county needed two duplicate call centers in Hobart and East Chicago in case one was disabled.
But their months of work were wasted when the Lake County Board of Commissioners shot that idea down as too expensive and forced them to accept a single call center in Crown Point.
The project suffered another setback last year when the county launched a request for proposals seeking vendors to bid on a contract to provide millions of dollars for communications equipment.
Nationally known electronics vendors complained to the police chiefs that the RFP's specifications were vague.
Miller said rather than simply list an inventory of equipment nationally known vendors already were peddling to the county, he carefully worded the specifications to attract a wider number of potential vendors to compete among themselves to do the legwork to fill in the details and offer more creative solutions to the county's E-911 needs.
Nevertheless, local officials sided with the vendors, commissioners withdrew the RFP over Miller's objection, and declined to renew IYP's contract.
Dabertin, who returned as a project consultant in 2011, said despite the lost time, a 21-member advisory board has settled on a common software information database and a textbook for dispatchers to follow in emergencies.
He said the recent passage of a local income tax has shored up the finances of a future countywide E-911 operation, which is bound to cost millions of dollars annually in operational expenses.
But Dabertin said county officials have expressed confidence Hitchcock will be the quarterback for whom the county has been looking.