New 911 Dispatch Center Settles into Old Jail Quarters in Porter County (IN)

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Doug Ross

The Times, Munster, Ind.

(MCT)

Porter County Commissioner Jim Biggs stood in the new Porter County Central Communications 911 dispatch center, amazed at the change from what the fourth floor of 157 Franklin St. once was.

“It was horrible,” Biggs, R-North, said. “It was your typical horrid linear jail.”

The fourth floor of the old Porter County Jail had dark corridors reminiscent of movies depicting life in prison, Biggs said. The county opened a new jail in the 1990s with a new concept — cells arranged in a pod for easier, safer supervision.

Biggs, who was on the Board of Commissioners at the time, said there’s no way he would have believed back then that the 911 dispatch operations would return to the building that housed them before the new jail was built.

The old jail building was sold, then repurchased by the county when the commissioners began evaluating space needs several years ago.

The math was simple, Board of Commissioners President Jeff Good, R-Center, said. The county had been considering enclosing the courtyard at the Porter County Administration Center just blocks away. That would have gained 9,000 square feet of space. Repurchasing the old jail gave the county 40,000 square feet for about the same price.

Counting the upgrades and purchase price, 157 Franklin St. cost the county about $11 million, Biggs said.

The negotiations to buy the building were tricky. Appraisals were well below what the owner wanted. Finally, Good said, the difference between the appraisals and the asking price became clear.

A tower atop the building was earning significant rental income, and that wasn’t accounted for in the initial appraisals. New appraisals were ordered, and the county was able to reach an agreement.

“It had great bones. It was built like a fortress,” Biggs said.

When the new jail was built, the old jail was a maintenance headache. “There wasn’t a month went by we didn’t get a call from maintenance about a burst pipe or whatever,” Biggs said.

The difference between then and now is partly the result of improvements to the building that the previous owner had made. Another factor is that prisoners tend to be hard on jail facilities. Strips of cotton and paper were flushed down toilets, clogging the drains.

From the fourth floor, inmates often dangled kite string out the narrow windows to haul up cigarettes and other contraband that accomplices below offered them. Those windows are gone, replaced by ones more typical of a modern office building.

Now, in the space where inmates lived and sometimes died, dispatchers will be sending police, firefighters and ambulance crews to the scene of crimes and other emergencies.

Anthony Stua, director of Porter County Central Communications, said the commissioners acknowledged that dispatchers can be under significant stress. Suicides can be the worst calls, he said.

The new facility includes a quiet room where overstressed dispatchers can decompress.

New dispatchers will use ergonomic workstations and state-of-the-art equipment. Each workstation has two heaters that can blow warm air on dispatchers’ legs if they get cold. The chairs, of course, have seats and backs that can be adjusted for comfort. The workstations themselves have surfaces that can be raised or lowered according to each dispatcher’s height.

On Tuesday, the dispatchers and their families got to see their new digs. Once a few final bugs are worked out, they’ll be moving in. Administrators are already housed there.

“It’s nice to be part of a new center where we’re getting to pick everything from scratch,” said Sandra Gallegos, training and IDAX coordinator for the county agency.

Trainees will get extensive instruction, beginning with five weeks of classroom work in the training room. Then they’ll move onto the dispatch floor for additional training — first answering calls, the hardest part of the job, then EMS and fire dispatching, then police.

Doing so will require paying attention to eight monitors at their workstation. Two are for the phone system and maps, four for the computer-aided dispatch system, one for the radio screen and another one for their network computer displaying email and other programs, Stua said.

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