CROWN POINT — Beneath the high-tech surface of Lake County's E-911 dispatch center, blame, finger-pointing and bitterness have been part of the communication stream since a state mandate threw the county’s public safety dispatchers into the same room in mid-October.
The Times recently spoke with current and past dispatchers, some who recently quit after years of service elsewhere, in the wake of emergency dispatching failures including deaths and complaints about their misdirecting police, and dispatchers being described by their administrators as lacking basic skills.
The county has terminated 12 of 95 staff dispatchers this year for various performance issues in its first year of the consolidation. Others have resigned only months after starting work.
The dispatchers who spoke to The Times described work at the newly opened multimillion-dollar call center that serves 15 city, town and rural county areas as a jarring contrast to their previous experiences in smaller, quieter, hometown dispatch rooms.
The Indiana General Assembly in 2008 ordered all 92 counties to consolidate their county, city and town public safety dispatch services by Jan. 1, 2015, to reduce local government costs and improve emergency response.
Crown Point, Dyer, East Chicago, Gary, Griffith, Hammond, Highland, Hobart, Lake Station, Lowell, Munster, Merrillville, New Chicago, St. John and Whiting joined the county's E-911 network last year. The county opened its consolidated call center in early October. However, while most other counties spent years putting together their single dispatch room, Lake County started the process in 2013.
Cedar Lake and Schererville rebuffed the county invitation, instead forming Southcom, a separate PSAP, or, public safety answering point.
Lake County E-911 Director Brian Hitchcock said he recommended the county not take over dispatching this year because of insufficient time to train staff and prepare the facility.
But local government officials insisted the county meet the state's 2015 deadline to preserve more than $2 million in annual state subsidies.
The new challenges described by at least two former and three current dispatchers include longer shifts, relentlessly high service call volume, low pay and low morale.
"My heart races when I go to work, and it doesn't stop," said a dispatcher who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal.
Hitchcock replied with concerns of his own in having to confront dispatchers who resent supervision, are set in the old ways of community dispatching and resent changes needed to upgrade public safety.
He said shortcomings arose from having to build a consolidated E-911 system in half the normal time, the result of local political gridlock in meeting a state mandate to consolidate by Jan. 1 of this year.
Hitchcock also noted other major stumbling blocks such as low salaries and the Lake County Council’s refusal to fund 110 dispatchers, the minimum number of dispatchers needed, according to his research.
Nonetheless, Hitchcock asked the public to be patient and assured that he will mold this essential, life-saving service to national performance standards.
"We are in the spotlight and will remain there until we get accepted into the community," Hitchcock said. "If we are doing our job, after a year's time, this will start to subside."
Some tell a different story.
Failure to communicate
"The biggest problem is management," said Thomas Ostrowski, a former county police officer and police dispatcher who worked most of this year for the county E-911 department before resigning in the fall and publicly voicing concerns about the operation.
He cited low pay — his salary was $32,000 annually — and insufficient training by county vendors as key problems.
Ostrowski said training involved groups of dispatchers “looking over the trainer's shoulder" — a far cry from the one-on-one training at a private academy he paid for out of his own pocket to further his education.
Hitchcock acknowledged Lake County's pay scale of $28,000 to $40,000 a year for dispatchers is low. "Anywhere in the Midwest, a dispatcher typically makes $40,000 a year and up," he said.
Hitchcock said trainers have given one-on-one training, and that much of the dispatchers' console of equipment is little changed from their previous municipal dispatch rooms. He said outside agencies will be brought into the call center to give specialized training.
Ostrowski also complained dispatchers no longer automatically run background checks on callers requesting police help, putting officers' safety at risk.
Hitchcock said police have access to any criminal warrants or warnings through their squad car laptops, and dispatchers will run background checks on request.
Ostrowski said dispatchers who once spent their careers in one community, now have to take calls from anywhere in the county, leading to daily confusion about who is handling what assigned area.
"You had to call out across the room to find out who to transfer a call to," he said of his time as a county dispatcher.
Hitchcock said dispatchers occasionally switch assignments, but the location of consoles devoted to Gary, Hammond and suburban communities remain fixed in the call center.
High volume, high noise
Phillip Philpot, who worked for more than eight years for Dyer and Munster dispatch before becoming a county E-911 dispatcher, said, "It is rather noisy in there."
Hitchcock said supervisors will ask dispatchers to lower their voices when noise levels rise, as more than 20 people talk simultaneously during peak times.
"We have acoustic ceiling tiles. We would have preferred dispatchers be spread a little farther apart, but if it's too far, then that complicates communications among them," he said.
Philpot, who quit in the fall after working for the county for much of the year, said, "Phones never stop ringing. It was high stress with a high call volume, and I didn’t like the 12-hour shifts.
"Everyone is all grouped together. They're handling 15 communities. Not everyone is familiar with the streets and communities. There’s so much confusion, and you have people yelling across the room at everybody. It’s a wonder there weren’t more errors being made."
Each year, hundreds of thousands of 911 calls and radio transmissions to police, fire and emergency medical service personnel in the field are made in Lake County.
Philpot also said county dispatchers must deal with too many non-emergency calls, such as people inquiring about how to obtain handgun permits or seeking holiday-event hours. Many police departments no longer field such phone calls after business hours since the county took over dispatching duties cities and towns once shouldered.
Hitchcock said non-emergency calls to 911 are given a low priority. He said municipalities should be telling the public to direct non-emergency calls to their town and city halls.
Jack Allendorf, deputy E-911 director, said dispatchers now have less multitasking to worry about. "They don't have to call tow trucks, answer other phones, deal with traffic tickets or answer a (police station's walk-in) window. Here, the call-takers answer the call and enter it into the system."
Call-takers then alert a dispatcher who transmits the information by radio to public safety workers in the field. Previously, dispatchers handled both the phone call and radio transmissions in most local communities.
Cell phone hide-and-seek
Dispatchers also spoke of frustration about sometimes not being able to locate cell-phone callers, who account for more than 70 percent of 911 calls in Lake.
The county's state-of-the-art communications gear automatically identifies the address of traditional landlines, but some cell phone service providers don't comply with global positional standards, and gaps in the county's geographic database can force dispatchers to guess a caller's location over a wide area around a cell tower.
Lake's street names also can be puzzling to the uninitiated. The public may call for help to a street with a locally known name that is different from its official designation. And, the same street names are found in different communities, leading to further confusion.
"Nine times out of 10, they are screaming when they call. You have to work to find out who the person is and where they are,” a current dispatcher said.
"One guy called saying he was having a heart attack. I asked him where he was, and all he knew is that he was on a street with a hospital. I asked for an intersection, and he gave me two streets that don't intersect.
"Everybody is angry. The administration is mad. The dispatchers get mad at the callers. The callers get mad at the dispatchers for asking so many questions. "
Strength in numbers?
Lake County Commissioner Roosevelt Allen, D-Gary, said many of the complaints against dispatchers stem from understaffing.
"Dispatching is a constant job. Calls are constantly coming in; you have to stay focused,” Allen said.
“If we have the proper number of people, that would make a big difference. To blame dispatchers when they are being overworked, when we don't have enough, and then they make errors, that creates problems.”
Hitchcock said he used a formula created by the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, or APCO, to arrive at the number of 131 dispatchers needed, based on the county's population and the typical public safety needs of an industrial and urban center.
"The County Council said that was too much," Hitchcock said. He said the Lake County Council budgeted salaries for a staff of 95, based on costs reported by the 15 communities within the county's E-911 network, and the absence of Cedar Lake and Schererville, which run a separate communications system.
Hitchcock believes the cities and towns under-reported their utility infrastructure costs, and that the true dollar amount would result in enough money to pay 110 dispatchers.
Currently down to 87 because of resignations and terminations, the dispatch staff is in a "danger zone" he hopes to eliminate next year with new hires, Hitchcock said.
Finding the right personnel
Philpot, one of the dispatchers who quit, said he was even more concerned about the hiring process.
He said during a job interview, Hitchcock didn't test him with questions about how he would respond to various emergency scenarios.
"He told me because of my past experience, we could skip the questions. I wanted to answer the questions. I just had an uneasy feeling about the screening they did during the interview process," Philpot said.
Hitchcock said county and municipal officials agreed to give existing dispatchers preference over other applicants. "We took (city and town officials') recommendations. Nobody gave a bad reference," Hitchcock said.
Hitchcock said his dispatchers have performed well under stress for the most part, but some haven't adjusted well, and some are resisting change.
He said some dispatchers still fail to ask callers what community they are in.
Recent testing found "approximately 15" dispatchers unable to type information from callers into the computer database at the national standard of 30 words per minute, Hitchcock said.
"Those who failed were typing between speeds of 14 and 20 words (per minute). Some of the delays we have been seeing is because of that slowness.
"Some of these people were 15-year employees and not knowing how to take a basic call. How did they survive?" Hitchcock said.
"The calls we are getting here are no different than they were getting before. People didn't just start messing up here. This has been going on in all of these communities all along."
He said dispatcher complaints result from their unhappiness with job-performance standards.
"We have people who are too busy figuring out how to get out of work than answering a 911 call, and we've terminated some people for the very same thing. Many didn't have supervision,” Hitchcock said.
“Now the white shirts are around, and it's a different environment they don't like.
"Some of them think they know everything, but we are five times larger than the previous largest (dispatch) organization, Hammond.
“When you bring in new people, you form them to what you want. You impress them with customer service,” Hitchcock said.
“We need dispatchers who have a sense of empathy for somebody calling 911. We can take a new trainee and set them out on the floor after they pass training with no problems, no issues.”