ST. JOHN | Efforts to open a clear line of communication among Lake County's police and firefighters were troubled by static over government policy Wednesday.
Lake County Commissioner Roosevelt Allen, D-Gary, Sheriff John Buncich and municipal public safety chiefs clashed over the convoluted business of merging 17 community-based E-911 radio systems into a single countywide network.
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.
Elected officials and public safety officers have disagreed. Last year, it was over the location of a central dispatching center. Wednesday it was over whom to give multimillion-dollar contracts to provide communications equipment ranging from broadcast towers to the portable radios police and firefighters wear in the field.
The county has little to show for hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on consultants in recent years to build a merged system as well as a consensus among community leaders, some of whom see no need for scrapping their local, functioning emergency communications for something that may not deliver the promised efficiencies.
Recently, commissioners sent some consultants packing. Jeffery Cicillian, the E-911 director, resigned in disgust in February. Commissioner Gerry Scheub, D-Crown Point, who has been helping oversee the process, announced Wednesday he has given up his seat on the public safety advisory board Wednesday to Commissioner Allen, saying the process has become too contentious.
Allen, attending his first meeting of the public safety advisory board, told the chiefs, "I'm not trying to be disruptive. I've been charged with moving the process forward to your satisfaction. The perception elsewhere in the state is that we will never meet our deadline. We have to prove them wrong."
Sheriff John Buncich, another member of the advisory board lamented, "Somewhere we have had a breakdown in communications. Month by month, we are going backwards."
Crown Point police Sgt. Jack Allendorf, who heads the police chiefs technical committee, demonstrated the inadequacies of the current communication system by playing a tape of an officer recently struggling with a violent criminal fugitive and calling frantically for backup over his portable radio.
Police radio coverage was so defective the officer's responses were garbled when other offices were desperately trying to ask him his location. Fortunately, a police helicopter pilot overhead, whose voice sounds similarly distorted on the tape, was able to find the officer and direct aid to him.
Allendorf said radio interference once only occurred inside buildings, but this officer was outdoors. He said a new generation of interoperable radios are needed to replace current equipment, some of which dates back to the 1980s.
The chiefs, three commissioners and seven County Council members are set to hold a summit meeting May 23 to better coordinate their efforts.