Dispatchers detail 911 system issues


Staff Writer

IRON MOUNTAIN – Emergency dispatchers at the Dickinson County Sheriff’s Office say the current 911 System is in need of replacement.

The dispatchers use a 21-year-old control panel to dispatch fire, law enforcement and other agencies to emergency situations.

Police and fire personnel use a modern 800-radio system, which is not compatible with the county’s current E-911 system.

“It’s such an old panel that it preceded the 800 system,” said Chris Erkkila, emergency dispatcher for Dickinson County.

According to dispatch officials, although the panel has had replacements, it’s not up to date.

Erkkila said there are many problems with the control panel when dispatching road patrol deputies, firefighters and local police departments.

Buttons on the control panel don’t always work.

Dispatchers do not always hear what officers are saying. Sometimes dispatchers have to page firefighters and police officers two or three times to communicate the emergency.

Cindy Reid, emergency dispatcher for the county, said minutes, even seconds make the difference in an emergency.

“Our equipment could fail at any moment. If the equipment fails, we have to do everything by hand. It’s very cumbersome,” said Reid.

If the system is hit by lightning, a back-up radio system is used until the panel is reset.

Erkkila said the last time the control panel was hit by lightning, she could not page any fire or emergency medical services.

“The system had to be re-booted,” she said. “The old backup system has to be programmed by hand and it takes 30 minutes.”

Dickinson County Emergency Coordinator Peter Schlitt said his concern is as the system ages, “it is less and less reliable and first responder safety is the utmost important.”

“There are communications issues that need to be resolved. The main concern is with panels failing and dispatchers dealing with incoming and outgoing traffic,” Schlitt said.

The current center has a new CAD (Computer-aided dispatch) system, which is integrated throughout the dispatch network in the U.P. Funded through grants, it allows the dispatchers to alert other U.P. Dispatch systems of the status of an emergency situation.

Erkkila said a new control panel would make everything work together better.

The current system has no communications with the four neighboring counties: Marinette, Menominee, Iron and Marquette.

Enhanced 911 is available 24/7/365 to all callers. It provides dispatch services for six law enforcement agencies, nine fire departments, four emergency medical services and two public works/road commissions.

Dispatchers also assist in calls for the following agencies: American Red Cross, Dickinson-Iron District Health Department, Salvation Army, Dickinson County Friend of the Court, Family Independence Agency, Airlifeline.

The system is also the 911 backup for Iron County and the communications backup for Florence County.

Due to action by the Michigan Public Service Commission in 2007, the 911 surcharge rebate per telephone line in the county was reduced from 70 cents to 42 cents, which currently provides less than 50 percent of the funds needed to operate the system.

On Feb. 26, voters are being asked to pass a millage for a levy of .4 mills for three years for the sole purpose of operating and equipping an Enhanced 911 system in the county.

Schlitt said the cost of the millage for a resident who owns a home valued at $150,000 is about $30 a year for three years.

The current system is six years beyond its design life and will cost approximately $360,000 to replace.

Schlitt said if the millage does not pass, the next step would be for the county to ask the voters to increase the tax rate as a way to fund a new 911 communications system.

Lisa M. Reed’s e-mail address is