A 44-year-old Forest Parker dialed 911 early in the morning in the first week of June after a neighbor allegedly pulled a semi-automatic handgun on him, following a parking dispute. The voice on the line asked him what town he was in, a surprising question.
At the beginning of May, Forest Park dissolved its local emergency dispatch center to conform to a new state law. That law, which went into effect in January 2016, mandated all municipalities under 25,000 residents join a consolidated dispatch center.
Forest Park had to comply by July 2017 and joined the West Suburban Consolidated Dispatch Center (WSCDC), alongside Oak Park, River Forest, Elmwood Park and Park Ridge.
This added step is one change Forest Parkers will now experience if they find themselves calling for emergency services. While the Forest Park man was not caught entirely off guard — he had called 911 in fall 2016 and had some experience talking with dispatchers — it did give him pause.
“You have to be queued up to do that in an emergency situation. I don’t think people are aware of that,” the man said, referring to giving the dispatcher a town name. “Honestly, I don’t think people know.”
The man told the Review he preferred to remain anonymous, citing ongoing litigation regarding the incident.
All of Forest Park’s six full-time dispatchers were hired on at WSCDC, which is housed in the same building as River Forest Village Hall, 400 Park Ave. With 28 dispatchers on staff, there’s a decent chance Forest Parkers will hear a familiar voice if they do call emergency services.
But, with WSCDC covering five communities, there are some addresses, like on shared major thoroughfares, that are exactly the same, except for the town name. An “address verification” step is now necessary, according to Brian Staunton, WSCDC’s executive director, who estimated the added step could add 10 to 15 seconds to a call.
And in instances like the Forest Park incident, where a firearm was involved and tensions were high, timing is critical.
Staunton pulled the call log for that incident and told the Review the call came in at 2:07 a.m. Twenty nine second later, the call was forwarded to Forest Park officers. By 2:11 a.m., police were on the scene. The entire response, then, took about three and a half minutes.
“They work as quickly as possible. They want to make sure they are sending people to the right place at the right time, the first time,” Staunton said of his dispatchers. “It doesn’t do us any good to send the police to the wrong place.”
Staunton said the absorption of Forest Park into the WSCDC has gone well. The WSCDC coordinates with all its member departments, including Forest Park, to maintain the level of service before the transition. This process includes getting to know how each department operates its police beats, what kinds of policies it uses and the ins and outs of each town’s geography.
So, while there is an added step, Staunton said he is confident residents will adapt.
“It’s something that as you see with most consolidations,” Staunton said, referring to the added extra step. “[But] usually within a short amount of time, that worry goes away because people become accustomed to it.”
There are some benefits to the transition. WSCDC, for instance, puts its dispatchers through emergency dispatch medical training, which allows them to give detailed over-the-phone instructions to callers dealing with major bleeding, or a heart attack or a pregnant woman in labor.
“They go through a certain set of protocols where they are asking very pointed, very specific questions to get more information out of the caller,” Staunton said. “We believe in that training. These protocols are designed to help in those medical situations.”
Forest Park dispatchers were not certified in emergency medical dispatch before they joined WSCDC. The cost of that training, which can be expensive and has to be renewed every few years, is now shared by five towns.
That cost sharing is also helpful moving forward too, as technology in dispatch centers continues to evolve. Soon, Staunton said, a center like his may be receiving emergency notifications from residents through video and text messaging, not just voice calls.
And, even with the transition to WSCDC, Forest Parkers will still be interacting with their town’s police officers and firefighters.
For now, the transition continues. At WSCDC, at least one former Forest Park dispatcher will be on each shift to help the rest of the staff get to know the community and answer any question.
But, Staunton said, residents will need to be ready to say what town they are in when they dial 911
“Forest Park, that should be the first thing people yell when they call 911,” the 44-year-old Forest Parker said. “That’s retraining what we’ve been told to do.”