LORAIN — The city’s fire department dispatch is now handled by the county’s 911 service center.
The switch started last Tuesday, Assistant Fire Chief Matt Homolya said, with the fire department staffing a backup dispatcher for about a week to ensure the change was as smooth as possible.
“It was a big move for us. We wanted to make sure that we did it right and make sure that all the information that we needed to pass onto them was in place and the radio infrastructure and things like that were taken care of, and it all takes time,” Homolya said. “Unfortunately, particularly in government, it takes years.”
The move was roughly two years in the making, something Homolya started when he was appointed chief. Homolya, who stepped down as chief in December, said in the years leading up to the switch, Lorain Fire has improved its radio infrastructure, with the county’s help. He said the department plans to upgrade its mobile radios, funds permitting, but the infrastructure was key.
The main perk of the switch is an added firefighter to each shift, as the person who had been assigned to work dispatch will now be back on a truck, Homolya said. That extra person a shift will allow the department to keep its aerial truck operational more often, improve search-and-rescue response times. Like the city’s police department, Lorain Fire is about 15 to 20 people below its authorized strength, so even one person added to a shift helps, Homolya said.
The switch has some technological advantages as well, including allowing the department access to the county’s mapping and computer-aided dispatch, which automatically provides backfill and prioritizes mutual aid calls by district. It does not automate mutual aid, meaning Lorain will still try to handle its calls via aid from other Lorain stations, but when that is not an option, calls are made in order to the closest municipalities’ stations to where an incident is.
The backfill system allows 911 to automatically call off-duty firefighters in to fill a station when its on-shift workers are at a scene.
“Previously when we were running our dispatch, when we had to fill in our station for a fire because all the units were out fighting a fire, we had one board operator or one dispatcher trying to call 70 guys individually,” Homolya said. “You’d have to call, leave a message or get a hold of someone and say, ‘Hey we need you to come in,’ hang up the phone, dial another number — it took a long time to get people in. Now, we tell 911 we need a fill-in, they basically hit a button and it dials out to everybody, they all get an automated voice message.”
He added, “When I was younger on the department I had to sit in that dispatch room and work fire calls and you want to rip your hair out sometimes — it’s crazy,” he said. “Especially during storms, you’d be going nuts. And we had to enter all our information in ourselves, now we have 911 that are trained dispatchers with all this new technology that can do that, and it makes life so much easier.”
The new system also can provide firefighters with information on buildings they are responding to, such as if it is a vacant property or there are other hazards crews should be aware of prior to arrival.
Homolya said the switch may increase call response times, as when the department was doing its own dispatch, calls would come in to 911, only to be transferred to Lorain Fire. Now, the middle man is eliminated, he said, shaving 30 seconds to a minute off response times.
Something the department pushed for with the switch is, in case of a large working structure fire or other emergency, one dispatcher handles the entire call. The department also will assign someone to man its original dispatch center when backfill is called in.
“When multiple calls are going on, it can get confusing no matter who you are, and it’s a safety measure for us in multiple call respects. And they’ll only chime in if they have to — that’s what they’re told is let 911 handle it, but if something starts getting out of hand or things are getting overwhelmed and you’re seeing that something needs to get done, chime in and take care of it,” Homolya said.
Lorain County 911 is funded in part by a property tax most recently renewed in 2017. Lorain residents already were paying this tax. Homolya said using the county system is not costing the department any extra money.
Mayor Chase Ritenauer noted the transition has been a long time coming.
“I appreciate the work of the county administrator and the county commissioners in helping get this done. Lorain taxpayers should not have to pay twice — through income tax and property tax — for dispatch services. Now they no longer will,” he said.
County Administrator Jim Cordes said he appreciated the chance to work with Lorain and its fire department.
“It’s a good thing,” he said. “We’ve been working on it for a long time, and we’ve done quite a bit of enhancements to their radios and their radio equipment within the city of Lorain to do this. I’m grateful we’ve had the opportunity to work together, and I think everything will work out just fine.”
The department’s non-emergency number is now (440) 204-2220. A switchboard is available, including for the assistant chief on duty, and can connect callers to voicemails if personnel are not available.