GOSHEN — Elkhart County emergency dispatchers answered more than 300,000 calls for help in 2011, but that number could grow next year.
It’s not because car accidents are expected to spike, and it’s not because there will be an upsurge in house fires. Instead, local leaders are getting a head start on a state law that will allow counties to have no more than two emergency communications centers after 2014.
Elkhart County has three 911 centers — one in Elkhart, one in Nappanee and one for the county in Goshen, which dispatches for 34 police, fire and emergency medical service agencies throughout the area.
The Elkhart County Council will review an agreement Saturday that would allow county dispatchers to begin answering emergency calls coming from Nappanee beginning Jan. 1.
Nappanee Mayor Larry Thompson is welcoming the change despite initial disappointment that state lawmakers did not take into consideration that the city’s 911 center coverage area includes part of Kosciusko County. If approved, all calls from phone numbers with 773 prefixes in Nappanee will be answered by the county’s communications center. Calls from phone numbers beginning with 773 in Kosciusko County will be handled by a call center in Warsaw. People calling from cell phones are already directed to Elkhart County’s 911 center.
Nappanee’s 911 center is staffed by fewer than 10 full-time and part-time dispatchers. Thompson said one or two of the dispatchers may interview for jobs with the county’s 911 center. The rest, he said, would receive unemployment benefits after the two centers consolidate at the end of this year.
Elkhart Mayor Dick Moore has not expressed interest in combining the city’s emergency communications center with the county’s operation. City dispatchers had 105,855 calls for service last year, representing 8,196 more than 2010.
Thompson said Nappanee residents are in good hands with the county and do not have to worry about lagging response times as a result of the two centers merging.
“With computers and mapping, dispatch centers are state of the art today,” he said. “They are even better than they were a couple of years ago. We have toured the county’s center several times, and I’m very impressed with their dispatch, their facility and the people running it.”
The Nappanee communications center will serve as a backup station housed in a 300-square-foot space at the city’s police department. Thompson said he hopes to keep someone on staff at the front desk from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. to answer non-emergency phone calls. He noted that Nappanee will continue to have an appointed member on the district’s Public Safety Communications Commission.
Elkhart County 911 Center director Egbert Dijkstra hopes the move will result in upgrades to outdated phone and radio systems that dispatchers use to communicate. The 10,000-square-foot center opened on C.R. 28 in 2005 after relocating from a smaller space on the main floor of the county’s former jail in downtown Goshen. The center employs 26 full-time workers who staff the building 24 hours a day. Of the 300,000 emergency calls that the county’s center answered last year, police, fire and EMS were dispatched for 165,207, Dijkstra said.