By Lasca Randels
WARSAW — The Kosciusko County 911 Dispatch Center recently got a much-needed facelift.
The Kosciusko Communications Center handles all radio communications for police, fire and emergency medical services in Kosciusko County. In August 2000 it combined with Warsaw Police Department to become Kosciusko Central Dispatch.
County commissioners, County Administrator Marsha McSherry, County Council Member Kathy Groninger and members of the media were given a tour of the newly remodeled communications center Tuesday following the regular county commissioners’ meeting.
The remodel involved new work stations and flooring. The work stations are equipped with adjustable desks that can be lowered if the dispatcher wishes to work from a seated position and raised if the dispatcher would prefer to stand.
“Once the desks get raised up over 30 inches they start counting the calories that you’re burning by standing,” said Kosciusko County Dispatch Center Director of Operations Sarah Lancaster.
Each station also has its own heating and cooling feature.
“This center was originally built in 1998 or 1999 and hadn’t had any upgrades until now so it was well overdue – and I’m going to be a little bit selfish – well deserved,” Lancaster said.
The remodel was set to be funded through the county; however, the county was able to access funds from the American Relief Plan Act to do the upgrades.
“The old work stations had formica tops and were stationary – a lot of laminate that was peeling and chipping,” Lancaster said.
Each station is equipped with an automatic color-coded signal that lights up to indicate whether or not a dispatcher is actively engaged in either radio or phone communication. If the green light is on, it means the dispatcher is not currently using the phone or radio, a yellow light means the dispatcher is on the radio and a red light shows that the dispatcher is on the phone.
“That just gives us an idea – don’t talk to them if it’s yellow or red,” Lancaster said. “This is the first step in the actual communications. We put in brand new radio consoles. We went with a new vendor- we went away from Motorola and went to Zetron – they have some different features that we didn’t have before – like the instant recalls.”
The County Communications Center is staffed with two administrators, seventeen full-time dispatchers and two part-time dispatchers.
Lancaster said they are currently fully staffed for the first time in approximately three years.
“Three is our minimum staff per shift. On the weekends during the summer we try to have at least four. Saturday with our storm – our normal average call volume is about 300. Saturday after all that wind, day shift alone took 357 calls. That day we took 550 calls, which is way out of the norm,” Lancaster said. “I tell everybody they dispatch for 38 agencies, but in reality it’s more than that, trying to get ahold of REMC, Nipsco, Duke Energy, Indiana Dept. of Transportation, all of the county and state highway. Everything starts here.”
“This is the nerve center of the county,” Kosciusko County Commissioner President Bob Conley said. “Everything starts here and functions because of what these people do.”
The 911 Dispatch Center has its own air supply system, a diesel generator and battery backup.
“They’ve build a lot of redundancies in place. Even with the future radio system there are a lot of redundancies there as well,” Lancaster said.
In the future, Lancaster said, she hopes to have an automated dispatch in which dispatchers would still take incoming calls but dispatching to police, fire and EMS would go through an automated system.
“Eventually, if it would work, maybe turn toward a silent dispatch,” Lancaster said. She explained that with a silent dispatch, very little information would come across standard scanners.
“The scanners you have at home now, you’d be receiving very limited traffic,” Lancaster said. “It’s an officer safety thing.”
Commissioner Vice President Cary Groninger said they have built enough capacity and plan on having fiber connections to the communications towers so that eventually livestream video may be able to be sent to the 911 communications center.
“And that is one thing that the whole 911 industry is looking at – what they call NextGen 911 where we could start actually receiving pictures, videos from a scene,” Lancaster said.
“What we’re trying to do at these tower sites, we’re trying to build enough capacity to handle that. We are trying to plan ahead for that as we’re working through this process, which would really – it’s kind of like whole next level,” Groninger said.
“I started out in the old jail which is the museum now. We had portable radios then and they didn’t work half the time. You’d get out in Silver Lake, Mentone, Syracuse and you might as well have a rock in your pocket because they just didn’t work,” Conley said. “We had no towers, no capacity, no repeater system. If your battery was weak, you were out there by yourself. It was pretty scary a lot of times. When you can pick up your radio no matter where you are in the county and you can be heard, that’s the capacity we’re going to have with these new towers. They’ll probably save lives.”
“We’ve come a long way,” Lancaster agreed.
“We’re also building into an LTE network so like your cell phone – when this thing is fully operational, you’ll actually be able to – individuals who have signed up and have the authority to be on the line can actually use their cell phone device to talk on the radio or call back to dispatch. You can actually talk to a police officer in his car with your cell phone,” Groninger said.
“Basically what’s happening is your cell phone is turning into a radio,” Lancaster said.
She thanked Groninger for his work on the county communications project.
“Somebody saw the foresight of what we needed and ran with it and I thank you for it,” Lancaster said to Groninger, who responded, “There were a lot of people on that team so…”
“Cary headed that up, so don’t let him fool you,” Commissioner Brad Jackson said.
“A lot of people worked really hard behind the scenes to get it to where it is,” Groninger insisted.
Lancaster also expressed gratitude to McSherry for her help.
“I can honestly say she really did make my job easier the week they were over here installing all of this,” Lancaster said. “She made it so I could actually work on my stuff and not have to oversee.”
A technology committee has been developed as well, made up of individuals from police, fire, EMS and dispatch. The committee reports to the commissioners.
“So if somebody wants to come onto our system, they have to submit a request – somebody outside of the normal police, fire, EMS – if they want space on one of our towers for broadband or something like that they have to submit a letter to the committee and the committee then makes a recommendation and we take it to the commissioners,” Lancaster said.
The committee is made up of 10 people and currently meets once a month.
“The key is that they have ownership. And if you feel like you have ownership in what’s going on, then you’re more involved and you take it more personally,” Conley said.
Groninger said, from a commissioner perspective, they wanted a committee made up of individuals who deal with radios and have technical knowledge in that area.
“They handle all that technical information and give recommendations to us as commissioners on what really needs to happen there because we’re not experts on radios and we want to leave that to the people who are dealing with it on a daily basis,” Groninger said.
The improvements made through the public safety communications project “really does put everybody on the same page,” Lancaster said.
“The ARPA money that is being used to help all the agencies in the county is incredible,” Lancaster said. “That is going to set us up even more so for the future when we’re all on the phase 2 system.”