EAST PEORIA — A beige push-button phone with a long cord hangs on the wall outside of what used to be, until last month, East Peoria's public safety communications and dispatch center. Pick it up and a visitor is connected to a dispatcher who has an instant radio connection to police and fire departments in East Peoria, but no physical presence in the building.
The dispatcher on the phone is in Morton.
"We're losing that human connection," East Peoria police Chief Steve Roegge said this week. "And that's a shame."
The East Peoria dispatch center dispatched its final call on May 20. Since then, all 911 calls that originate in East Peoria have been handled by the dispatch center in Morton. The switch-over was the culmination of a 2015 state mandate that all Illinois counties with a population of less than 250,000 that have a single Emergency Telephone System Board and more than two dispatch centers to reduce that number by half. Tazewell County met all the criteria and that meant that four county dispatch centers would be reduced to two. East Peoria and Washington would close and move all dispatch operations for those two cities, and every smaller law enforcement department and fire protection department and district in the jurisdiction to the beefed-up center in Morton.
"There were a few glitches at the very beginning," Roegge said.
"But actually it went pretty smoothly," added East Peoria Mayor John Kahl.
Roegge, Kahl and East Peoria Fire Chief John Knapp sat for an interview this week about the long process that ended in the loss of the city's dispatch center and the loss of about five jobs of the people who worked there.
"Some of these dispatchers were people I had known and respected and worked with for 25 years,"said Knapp. "It was tough."
The space in the front of East Peoria's Public Safety building that was occupied 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year by the 12-person, three-shift staff of dispatchers, is now home to two records clerks who work regular business hours and only on weekdays. They can answer walk-up questions if they are around, but it's not really their job to be the public's link to law enforcement.
"They have enough to do," Roegge said.
The radio consoles and equipment are being dismantled this week, and office equipment is being moved in.
Potential problems lurk in hidden corners. All radios aren't compatible. The numerical codes used to identify categories of emergency calls differ from department to department. Call it civic pride, a resistance to change or an aversion to being told what to do, it is undeniably true that a community is better served by a dispatch center located in the community where calls are received and help is dispatched.
"For residents to call 911 there is a comfort level that they are calling a friend, or a neighbor or somebody from their community," Knapp said. "It's the personal touch."
While it's all new right now, Kahl said he expects the work of the conjoined dispatch centers to evolve in the direction of familiarity.
"There is definitely a learning curve," said Kahl, who along with Knapp serve as the East Peoria representatives on the 11-member operational board of the entity known as Tazewell County 3, or TC3.
He also sees no improvement in service or a cost savings for participants.
"I don't know of anybody who loves this change," Kahl said.
"None of us asked for this," said Knapp. "But we are resigned to getting it done the best way possible."
Scott Hilyard can be reached at 686-3244 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @scotthilyard on Twitter.