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.
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
“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.
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.”
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
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
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.
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,”
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.