VALPARAISO — Porter County officials are pushing for consolidation of emergency dispatch services, but so far Chesterton and Porter aren’t budging.
It’s just one of the controversies swirling around planned changes to 911 dispatching in Porter County.
The two towns have their own joint dispatch service for their police departments. Their Fire Departments, and other local first responders in the county, are handled through the Porter County 911 call center.
Currently, 911 calls from Chesterton and Porter are routed to the county 911 public safety answering point, and then they’re sent back to the dispatcher serving those two towns.
The courtship of Chesterton and Porter is among the issues that have arisen from big changes underway at the county’s 911 dispatch operation.
The county plans to move the 911 call center to the old Porter County Jail on Franklin Street, just south of the Porter County Museum. The county closed on the purchase of the old jail last week.
As part of the move, the county plans to put new equipment and software in the new space. It’s a big undertaking.
“Our goal is to make this the No. 1 911 center in the state,” Porter County Executive Director of Public Safety Mike Brickner said.
The future of 911 is going to include livestream video of witnesses and victims, Brickner said.
He also plans to pursue national accreditation through the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, just as he did when he was Valparaiso’s police chief.
“We’re looking at moving into a new facility, making that a unique facility and a model to the state,” Brickner said.
The county Board of Commissioners hired Brickner and then Robert Lanchsweerdt, as director of Porter County Central Communications, to make big changes.
They’ve reviewed staffing levels, internal operations and policies.
“Of course, with changes come old ways of thinking and politics,” said Commisisoners President Jeff Good, R-Center.
One of the changes has been to a silent dispatch protocol, with a test run that started two weeks ago by most first responders in Porter County. The Portage Police Department is a notable exception.
If you’re accustomed to listening to the police radio to see what police, firefighters and EMS personnel are up to, you might have noticed call volume dropping. With silent dispatch, many of the messages are being sent as text to police officers’ computers in their cars. Urgent messages are still sent over the radio.
“We’re kind of in a practice phase right now of doing some silent dispatching,” he said.
Portage Police Chief Troy Williams said he was uninvited to the meeting at the sheriff’s department where silent dispatch was discussed, and then a draft of the policy came out. He found out about it only after a member of another department gave a copy to Portage’s assistant chief when they met on the side of the road.
Williams has butted heads with Brickner before on the 911 changes.
“I suppose the more information we get, the more chance we have to understand things going forward,” he said.
Part of the move to new equipment is a switch to digital radios on the 700 megahertz band. Currently, there are a number of different frequencies throughout the county.
Brickner and Lanchsweerdt are pushing a plan to use a single channel, just as the South Bend Police Department used when Lanchsweerdt was in St. Joseph County. That department receives about 100,000 calls for services each year.* Porter County had about 122,000 calls last year, 44,000 of which were for traffic stops, Lanchsweerdt said.
Hendricks County, just outside Indianapolis, also uses a single channel. That county’s 911 operation has been an inspiration for Brickner and Lanchsweerdt as they put together Porter County’s new iteration of 911 dispatch.
They studied call volume data, including the types of calls, when they were received and which departments handled them. Using silent dispatch frees up air time, which Brickner and Lanchsweerdt believe means a single channel for the entire county will be sufficient.
“This is supported by data and factual information,” Brickner said.
Williams has been fighting for a second channel for northern Porter County. His is a busy police department, with more calls than others.
He put together a thick binder of briefing materials to show his viewpoints.
“As you can see, I’ve done my research,” he said.
Liberty Township firefighters who showed up at a Porter County Council meeting in April to voice concerns about the change were told to approach the commissioners first.
The commissioners have not yet voted on whether to use a single channel or two.
A second channel is an added expense. And if the county decides to go with a single channel and decides that isn’t working, it will be “a lot of our time and a lot of our money” to get all the radios programmed later, Williams said.
The expense of the new 911 equipment is something all the players are mindful of.
By waiting until Porter County Central Communications moves into the old jail, the county doesn’t have to incur the cost of installing and programming the equipment. The vendor ultimately chosen will do that one time as part of the contract.
Porter County officials say they could take on dispatching for Chesterton and Porter at no additional cost, because the county already has adequate staffing for it.
“We could take you on tomorrow,” Commissioner Jim Biggs, R-North, said. He lives in Chesterton.
Chesterton Councilman Emerson Delaney, liaison to the town’s police and fire departments, said the cost to maintain a separate dispatch center is far less than what Brickner and Lanchsweerdt estimated.
“They said if we want to continue what we’re doing, it would cost us about $350,000 a year,” Delaney said. “When we did our homework, we found that not to be true. It is going to cost each community … about $110,000 combined, for both departments.”
The Chesterton Town Council voted last week to commit to its share, about $55,000 annually, of that cost.
But if the two towns opted to let the county handle dispatch services for their police departments, they could save close to $500,000 annually when dispatchers’ salaries and benefits are factored in, Biggs said.
Delaney said one of the sticking points in the negotiations with the county was when Biggs, Brickner, Lanchsweerdt and other county officials refused to automatically take on Chesterton and Porter’s dispatchers.
“That was the deal-killer for them,” Good said.
Those dispatchers would be moved to the front of the line, Biggs said, but they would still have to be properly vetted like any other job applicant.
The two towns employ a total of six to eight dispatchers to offer 24-hour service, Delaney said.
That’s one dispatcher per shift.
Delaney said Bricker and Lanchsweerdt are doing work that needs to be done to shake up the central communications operation.
But until that work is done, he said, Chesterton and Porter should remain on the sidelines.
"They're not ready. They have to crawl before they walk. It's going to take awhile before they get going," Delaney said.
Among Delaney's concerns is the county operation's operating budget once everything is up and running.
"If they're going to ask for money from the county for operating funds, I for one would like to know, what is your budget?" he said.
"It's like a business plan. You've got to put it together three years out, and that hasn't been done yet," he said.
As for a merger, Delaney's answer is not now.
"It could be considered at a future date," he said. "Yes, we left that open."
Another source of controversy is the county’s move to streamline protocols.
Brickner and Lanchsweerdt are pushing the police and fire departments to accept a single set of countywide protocols for handling calls. That means retraining first responders, but it also means it would take less time to train dispatchers.
"There shouldn't be six different ways to dispatch an alarm," Brickner said.
“We’re not into running a boutique call center,” Good said.
Williams said his department is willing to agree to some changes that will streamline responses.
"A lot of culture has to be booted out the door" to turn this into a model system, Biggs said.
County attorney Scott McClure said the commissioners' decision to make big changes in the central communications operation were supported by first reponders.
"We were getting threats from police chiefs: 'If you don't do something, we're going to go to the paper,'" McClure said.
At the root of these discussions, it’s all about public safety, county and municipal sources agree.
None would willing put officers or firefighters or EMS in harm's way, they said.
“At the end of the day, we want all our citizens to know they can call 911 and get a response that’s fast, effective and cost-efficient,” said Commissioner Laura Blaney, D-South.
* This story has been changed from the original.