Chesterton Tribune



911 Director: Radio consolidation will improve emergency response

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Porter County 911 Director Rob Lanchsweerdt believes that there’s no such thing as true multitasking, but Porter County’s 911 dispatchers--who field phone calls and radio transmissions simultaneously--are doing just that every day.

Lanchsweerdt and Porter County Public Safety Director Mike Brickner are heading a plan to revamp Porter County’s 911 center through various policy changes and upgrades, and solving the multitasking problem is at the forefront of their vision.

“The first thing is to make sure we provide a safe environment for our community,” Lanchsweerdt said. He has spent significant time since being hired last November compiling research on Porter County’s 911 calls and crime rates. According to his research, 911 best practices, reports from consultants, and real-world examples, Lanchsweerdt believes that radio consolidation will help dispatchers be more efficient and eliminate confusion caused by excessive radio chatter.

Right now, Lanchsweerdt said, each department in the county operates on its own channel with the 911 Center dispatching for most agencies. Chesterton and Porter PDs handle their own calls. This means that one town’s channel doesn’t get backed up with non-emergency calls from other municipalities. The drawbacks are that officers from one town don’t hear initial calls from other areas, and dispatchers are responsible for handling both radio transmissions and phone calls. “It’s like texting and driving,” he said. “When we have people doing multiple things, we’re taking our eyes off the proverbial road.”

Lanchsweerdt said that, under a consolidated system, Porter County first-responders would share one primary radio channel for initial calls. When a non-emergency call comes in, conversations related to that call move to one of seven “talk group” channels where officers can talk to each other without clogging the primary channel. Fire departments and emergency medical services will have their own dedicated primary channel with eight talk groups. Each of the primary channels will be monitored by dispatchers who respond solely to radio calls.

The goal is for officers to practice “radio discipline” so emergency calls are heard by more people and don’t compete with other conversations on the primary channel. Many conversations taking place on the current channels are non-emergency calls or administrative requests such as license checks for traffic stops, according to Lanchsweerdt. Making the switch from the primary channel to a talk group for one of those requests will be as simple as a slight turn of a knob, as he demonstrated on one of the new 700 megahertz radios.

Lanchsweerdt also noted that officers themselves don’t have to switch channels or rely on the primary channel in an emergency because an orange mayday button on the top of each radio has a direct line to the 911 Center. If an officer presses it, the whole center “lights up” indicating that an officer is in need of assistance.

Brickner and Lanchsweerdt said this move is all about safety--for the public and officers. The one-channel system will allow dispatchers to focus on doing one job perfectly rather than multitasking. It will also allow any officers in the area of a call to respond. Lanchsweerdt gave an example: “U.S. Highway 12 passes through seven different jurisdictions. When someone calls for help on 12, I’d rather have seven jurisdictions hear it than one.”

Landschweerdt said the 911 Center is completely county funded. And while any departments wishing to remain independent won’t be forced to participate, they would be required to fund their own 911 operations if consolidation goes into effect.

An Example

A successful consolidated system is already in place in Hendricks County, near Indianapolis, Lanchsweerdt said. Hendricks County is similar to Porter County in terms of population and call volume, but in fact last year Porter 911 had 20 percent fewer calls: 122,000, compared to Hendricks’ 152,000.

On the other hand, Hendricks did have about 7,500 fewer calls for fire and EMS, but as Lanchsweerdt noted, “Porter County is a safe community,” where the majority of calls are for non-emergencies and very few for complex situations like structure fires. Calls for fire/EMS made up 16 percent of the total call volume for Porter County in 2017, and 85 percent of those calls were just for EMS.

As far as police calls go, the majority in Porter County are for traffic stops (36.5 percent) and suspicious person/vehicle reports (9 percent), while Chesterton and Porter police calls make up 10 percent of the total call volume. One of Lanchsweerdt’s data sheets reveals the raw numbers behind the percentages. Porter County law enforcement conducted 44,638 traffic stops last year compared to 414 reports of burglary and 40 of rape.

Lanchsweerdt also noted that he collaborated with the director of the Hendricks County 911 Center, Steve Cook, to set up a 30-day live feed of one of the primary channels first responders use there. He has made this tape available to all the police and fire chiefs in Porter County so they can listen firsthand. Lanchsweerdt himself spent hours listening to Hendricks County officers communicate on their one-channel system. Not only does it work, he said, but “Their radio discipline is impeccable.”

Brickner noted that he and Lanchsweerdt consulted with former dispatchers, including Training Coordinator Renee Tomlinson, and people who have worked on the 911 Center floor are excited for a one-channel system. “Change creates some anxiety and we know that, but the successes will far outweigh the bumps along the road,” he said.

The final decision on whether or not the county will switch to a one-channel system is up to the County Commissioners. Commissioner Jim Biggs, R-North, read a prepared statement at the Commissioners’ meeting Tuesday morning saying they will spend several weeks reviewing the proposal before they come to a decision. “We will continue to listen to thoughtful and reasoned input from our police and fire departments, and above all else, we will make the safety of our citizens and the first responders our top priority.”

Training and a New Location

Lanchsweerdt also reported that Tomlinson has been able to shorten training time since she was made training coordinator, a position that sat unofficially empty for seven years prior to Brickner’s taking charge. Last year, an office that was being used for storage was cleared and made into a small training room with four terminals where Tomlinson coaches new dispatchers.

Tomlinson said training used to take a year because new dispatchers observed and learned on the floor. She noted that trainees often see the same type of calls over and over again when observing. Now that she has a controlled environment where she can simulate any scenario, training only takes four months, split between practicing simulated calls in the training room and observing on the floor. She goes down a checklist making sure that trainees practice taking every possible type of call multiple times. “It’s a lot more concentrated,” she said. “There’s no pressure because it’s not real life, and they can stop to ask questions.”

In other news, the Commissioners have plans to purchase the old jail building at 157 Franklin St. in Valparaiso, and 911 is one of the departments that will move there. Lanchsweerdt said he isn’t sure how much square footage the 911 Center will get in its new home. “All I can tell you is it will be a more efficient use of space,” he said.

Lanchsweerdt gave the Chesterton Tribune a tour of the 911 Center. He said the ideal plans for a new center would include a bigger training room, a conference room, a quiet room, and more storage. Right now, most 911 employees share offices, meetings have to be held at conference rooms in other buildings, and the dispatchers don’t have their own space.

“We want to have a quiet room where dispatchers can decompress or maybe make a phone call to a loved one,” Lanchsweerdt said, noting that they deserve a dedicated spot to take breaks during their 12-hour shifts. Right now, they have a small locker room and a counter on one side of the call center floor where they store and microwave meals.

Some office space, including occupied offices, are also doubling as storage and there is storage shelving in the main hallway. Lanchsweerdt gestured to boxes of radio equipment on the floor in the Database Administrator’s office. “There’s got to be a better way to store these than just putting boxes on the floor.”

Lanchsweerdt emphasized that improvements to 911 are not about money being thrown around, but rather about using taxpayer dollars the right way. “Throwing taxpayer money at a bad idea doesn’t make it a good idea,” he said, adding that forward-thinking changes, like the one-channel radio system, are wise uses of resources. He said hiring more dispatchers isn’t a long-term solution for the problems facing 911, and it isn’t a solution that sets Porter County up for future advances in emergency response.

Lanchsweerdt and Brickner are planning to give a detailed presentation on improvements in 911, including the proposal for consolidation, to the County Council at its next meeting, on April 24.


Posted 4/19/2018




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