It's a common story: An incident occurs requiring emergency personnel from different agencies or jurisdictions to respond. Once on the scene, difficulties arise because disparate radio equipment makes it hard for those agencies to communicate.

In recent years, Hendricks County, Ind., had such an incident. Fire personnel couldn't communicate once on the scene - prompting intense discussion, and now action, in the form of a new radio system and the consolidation of four dispatch centers into one.

"That was one of the things that helped kick this off," said Larry Brinker, executive director of the new Hendricks County Communications Center, which resulted after negotiations and consultations with police, fire, emergency medical services (EMS) and public works. "We had a fire, and four different agencies showed up with four different radios. As they were fighting the fire, we had to go around and [give] extra radios to everyone so they could communicate. Now they all have the same capabilities on the same channel."

About three years ago - after this incident - Hendricks County commissioners agreed that improving 911 communications was critical, and blessed the spending of a 911-surcharge fund on new communications technology.

Funding Dilemma
Knowing this funding was available had police, fire, EMS and public works dreaming of shiny new facilities, and spiffy new technology and capabilities - and the original plan sought to make it all happen by outfitting all four dispatch centers with such things.

Officials knew what kinds of new technologies they wanted in the centers, but found that the $7.5 million generated by a $1 monthly surcharge for 911 emergency services - which was added to every phone line since 1995 - and some federal grant money wouldn't suffice for the four centers. Equipping all four centers with the technology they envisioned would cost $12 million.

"Everybody wanted to keep their own dispatch centers, but they wanted all the technology options they could possibly have," Brinker said.

"The original plan we put together, which was going to outfit all four dispatch centers with about three-quarters of the capabilities, was going to cost about $12 million," Brinker said. "We pared it to where we'd operate two centers, and that got us down to $8.5 million at about 75 percent of the technology. When we brought it down to one location, that freed up enough of the savings that we were able to get 100 percent of the technology we wanted, and do it at the cost we had to work with."

The result is a new communications center with state-of-the-art equipment that dispatches for police, fire and emergency medical in Hendricks, Avon, Brownsburg, Danville and Plainfield counties.

"In the past, a 911 call might get transferred two or three times before it got to the right place," Brinker said. "Now, all 911 calls come to one location, and the call-taker enters the information into the computer."

Having all the dispatchers in one building meant a couple of things. One, fewer dispatchers would be needed; and two, personnel would be used more efficiently. The county employed 38 call-takers, down from 49 prior to the consolidation. The center includes 13 workstations for dispatchers, and each station has six flat video screens that display information about incoming calls.

When there were four centers, each needed to be staffed with two or three call-takers. If there was an emergency in one area, the call-takers in one of the centers were overwhelmed while the call-takers in the other centers weren't busy. "Now we have eight to 11 people scheduled on duty to handle multiple emergencies throughout the county," Brinker said.

The goal was to get down to the 38 dispatchers through retirement and attrition, and that's exactly how it happened, Brinker said. "No one was fired."

One Radio System
Another piece of the

Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor  |  Justice and Public Safety Editor