DeKALB – As soon as the yellow light above Heide Clark’s dispatch station turned on, she calmed her voice, swiveled her chair to face six illuminated screens, neutralized her tone and responded.
Clark, 39, was the most senior dispatcher in the room Wednesday at the DeKalb Police Department’s 911 dispatch center.
“I did not know what I was getting myself into,” Clark said, reflecting on her 15-year career as a telecommunicator. “I didn’t realize it was answering the phones, answering emergency calls and dispatching the calls. It took me a good, solid year to get comfortable, and handle my first shooting.”
She spoke in between calls, keeping tabs via the black headset she wore.
It’s National Telecommunications Week, and DeKalb dispatchers have enjoyed celebrations all week, with one telecommunicator’s mom bringing in cookies. DeKalb police Cmdr. Jason Leverton, who oversees the department’s communications division, even brought in his son’s pet rabbit, Chubs, for the staff to enjoy.
“Really, what this job is is you’re going to be answering calls of people’s bad days,” Leverton said. “I’m proud of them for the work they do to be able to handle a lot of tough situations.”
In an effort to make the tough situations less so, and in an attempt to stay as up-to-date as possible with digital technology, the DeKalb Police Department, along with surrounding law enforcement agencies, is set to undergo a dispatch overhaul this year.
Three projects are on the docket: consolidating 911 response centers from four to two in the county; countywide implementation of the Next Generation 911 system and rewiring all county 911 calls from a VHF radio network to a digital system through fiber-optic networks.
Mandated by the state of Illinois to save project costs for the impending Next Generation 911 upgrade system, counties are being required to cut their 911 dispatch centers in half, Leverton said. Northern Illinois University police and the Sandwich Police Department no longer will receive 911 calls, leaving only DeKalb and the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office to take charge of all 911 calls and route responders to their respective jurisdictions.
The consolidation is slated to be completed by June 30, Leverton said.
In the DeKalb Police Department, a minimum of two (with three preferred) dispatchers work an eight-hour shift, with some part-time telecommunicators to fill in, or work a 10-hour overlap shift.
The next generation
The second step of the process is to bring the 911 calls into the digital age, and that’s where the Next Generation 911 system comes into play. Leverton said the project is set to be completed by September, and primarily is a DeKalb County-driven effort.
Next Generation 911 systems use digital or internet-based technology to create a faster system that allows callers to communicate with voice calls or by sending photos, videos or text messages. But because most 911 systems were built using analog technology, making this change requires work and coordination, according to 911.gov.
“Texting takes more time. You’re not getting background noise, tone of voice, fear in the voice,” Leverton said, adding that people should “phone if you can, text if you can’t.”
Leverton said dispatchers still would rather have people in emergencies call instead of text, but the Next Generation system allows for a greater ability to communicate in dire situations.
“There are times where it’s appropriate,” Leverton continued. “If you’re bound in the trunk of a car, or something really terrible where you’re hiding in a closet and don’t want to make noises.”
Depending on the day, Leverton said the dispatchers can get a high volume of calls or a few at a time. He calls it “extreme multitasking where you aren’t allowed to make a mistake.”
According to the DeKalb Police Department’s 2018 Annual Report, the department is piggybacking on DeKalb County’s $4 million system overhaul.
“[The sheriff’s office] provides their deputy service through the whole county, so they have a need to build throughout the whole county anyway,” Leverton said. “They look at it like ‘Well, we have to build this for us, so we’ll allow other departments to use that infrastructure as long as they’re buying their own radios.’ ”
With all three projects set to be completed by the end of 2019, Leverton said the 911 system will be “the most seamless this county has ever seen.”
“That’s why all the projects go together,” he said. “The 911 consolidation is really just a foreshadowing of the Next Gen project. And then we knew one of the obstacles of consolidated dispatch was not having a unified radio network.”