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122715-nws-dispatch

Lake County E-911 dispatchers keep track of emergency calls during a day shift.

Lake County officials must get a handle on clear problems within the emergency dispatch service.

Lives depend on it.

We unfortunately know all too well what can happen when the service isn't functioning properly.

In 2015, employee errors or failure to follow protocol were cited in at least two cases in which county residents dialed 911 but didn't receive help in time to make a difference. In one case, an off-duty NICTD police officer died of a heart attack, and in the other, a Griffith man died following heart problems. Both cases involved communication breakdowns with dispatchers.

These cases were among a number of problems that plagued Lake County's emergency dispatch in its opening months of operation after more than a dozen separate dispatch services consolidated into one service in accordance with state law.

This past week, complaints of problems with staffing, overworked employees and dispatcher fatigue hoisted new red flags up the tall radio antenna of the Lake County Government Center-based service in Crown Point.

The complaints were thoroughly detailed Friday in an investigative report from Lake County government and senior political reporter Will Racke.

Overtime costs at the center have been soaring because of staffing shortages at the center as a result of severe staffing shortages.

E-911 staffing is set by the county at 100 full-time dispatchers for 2019.

However, only 73 dispatchers are currently cleared to operate at the facility, and another 10 are in training.

As a result, employees and administrators acknowledge dispatchers are working grueling overtime at the center to make up for the staffing shortages.

Three dispatchers, who spoke to The Times on condition of anonymity because they feared they could lose their jobs, described a cycle in which new hires have to work long hours, in some cases working 16-hour shifts that end at 7 a.m. only to return for another 16-hour stint at 3 p.m. the same day.

E-911 Director Mark Swiderski and the Lake County commissioners must get a handle on this situation.

Our county cannot afford to allow such an essential service to slip back into past danger zones.

The stakes of human life are way too high.

County officials have lauded themselves in the past for raising the base salaries of dispatchers in order to attract and retain better talent in those ranks.

That didn't prevent the current staffing debacle.

It's time to get back to the drawing board, and quickly.

All county residents who care about the safety of themselves and loved ones during emergencies should be sounding a unified alarm with their county elected officials.

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Members of The Times Editorial Board are Publisher Christopher T. White, Editor Marc Chase, Deputy Editor Kerry Erickson, Assistant Local News Editor Crista Zivanovic and Regional News Editor Sharon Ross.