METCAD marking three decades of serving Champaign County

URBANA – The 911 emergency dispatching system in Champaign County is approaching a milestone.

The Metropolitan Computer Aided Dispatch Service will celebrate its 30th anniversary next month.

An open house is set for 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. June 3 at the dispatch center, 1905 E. Main St., U.

The first night of operations in 1979 was full of problems, newspaper stories at the time noted. The computer crashed and the radio system went down. Other problems, including equipment problems, cropped up over the years.

METCAD now provides consolidated police, fire and emergency dispatching for most of Champaign County. In 2008, it handled about 163,000 calls for service. In 1979, there were roughly 36,000 calls to the police dispatch center.

METCAD now has 26 dispatchers or telecommunicators and six administrative staff members. The first year, it had nine dispatchers, including many part-time staff members.

Jim Page, a former Urbana police officer who worked as a part-time police dispatcher in the early days, said, "The METCAD concept was way ahead of its time when formed. It was an oddity at most police agencies in 1979. Today it is the standard."

Page went on to become deputy chief in Urbana and is now executive director of the Law Enforcement Alarm System, a statewide police emergency mutual aid and training agency.

"In 1977, when I started, every police department and the sheriff's office had their own dispatchers and no 911 directing the caller to the appropriate jurisdiction," Page said.

"Lots of calls were made to the wrong police agency," Page said. "A lot of time was wasted by dispatchers calling back and forth to determine the appropriate jurisdiction."

Time was also wasted when officers needed help, which was potentially dangerous, Page said.

"It could be that a neighboring jurisdiction had a squad car a lot closer than your own, but because they did not share channels, they were unaware of the need," he said.

Current METCAD Director Rick Kallmayer, a former Rantoul police officer and former assistant chief with the UI police, said the key thing about METCAD is the teamwork – among the various emergency responders and the 911 dispatchers.

Kallmayer said there is still occasional confusion over jurisdiction, but the METCAD computer system is constantly being updated, incorporating annexations and other changes into the database.

"Public safety is the most important thing," Kallmayer said.

Ann Panthen, operations manager, said officer safety is also important and providing backup for officers on the street is a "big deal" for dispatchers.

Teamwork is an essential for emergency dispatching, she said. That includes dispatchers working with each other and working with the emergency responders.

Panthen said that of the various storms and natural disaster events that kept 911 dispatchers busy, she most vividly recalls an ice storm in February 1990.

Ironically, it wasn't lack of systems or staffing that caused the biggest problem for METCAD that night. It was a lack of seats for the dispatchers, Panthen said.

"Everybody pitched in," she said. "We only had five consoles."

For Barry Furey, who was METCAD director from 1986 to 1989 and now is directing an emergency dispatch system in Raleigh, N.C., the major success of his tenure was to bring three-digit 911 service to Champaign County. Before the 911 number, a call for local emergency services in any of the three jurisdictions was to 333-8911.

Many people new to the community at that time had been used to a three-digit number, Furey said.

Another problem then was that a call-taker at METCAD had to transfer an emergency call to a specific police agency or to a separate fire dispatching service.

"Once you had the caller on the line, it didn't make a lot of sense that you had to transfer the call," Furey said.

METCAD milestones: A look back at 30 years of dispatch center

– 1975 – Champaign and Urbana councils approve policy, money for consolidated police communications; UI also joins; grant from East Central Illinois Criminal Justice Commission enables program.

– August 1978 – formal agreement for METCAD approved; James Munn named first director.

– June 3, 1979 – METCAD begins dispatching from basement of county office building, 1905 E. Main St; 333-8911 listed as emergency number.

– Dec. 1, 1981 – Champaign County sheriff's office joins METCAD.

– July 18, 1982 – METCAD office hit by lightning, knocking out power, dispatching for four hours.

– May 1984 – County begins assessing villages for dispatching.

– August 1986 - Barry Furey hired as director.

– 1998 – FIRECOM fire dispatching consolidated with METCAD

– November 1988 – voters approved 75-cent phone surcharge to pay for 911 dispatch service

– February 1989 – Basic 911 service begins after years of delay on 3-digit emergency line

– June 1991 – Brian Melby hired as director.

– 1992 – mobile data terminal system begins allowing patrol officers to access dispatch information from squad cars.

– October 1995 – METCAD reorganizes and Al Anderson hired as director.

– May 11, 1996 – E911 system, or Enhanced 911, where the system is able to track the location of a 911 emergency call, begins.

– November 1998 – Voters approve increase in phone surcharge to pay for equipment improvements; revolving 10-year capital improvement plan approved by METCAD board.

– March 1999 – Emergency medical dispatching added to METCAD.

– September 2006 – enhanced wireless 911 calls made possible for METCAD.

– June 2004 – Rick Kallmeyer hired as director.

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