MADISON — A goal that officials described as in the works for about 40 years appears ready to be completed later this year.
At Wednesday’s meeting of the Madison County Board of Commissioners, Sheriff Todd Volk and Norfolk Police Chief Don Miller provided updates on the new communications system and the merger of dispatch services between the two entities.
Both law enforcement leaders said that while there are a lot of moving parts, a new communications center to serve both the city and county from Norfolk is targeted to open Oct. 1.
The City of Norfolk’s 911 center was chosen to be one of the main hubs for dispatching in the area. It will dispatch for the Madison County Sheriff’s Office and the City of Norfolk, with steps being taken in recent months and continuing toward the merger.
Volk said the new radio system, which the county purchased and is one cog in the system, has been working well after a few “minor hiccups” initially.
One of the biggest benefits is that the county, city, Nebraska State Patrol and other emergency officials can now communicate with one another on the same system and with better clarity.
Dispatcher Deb Davis of the county said the clarity of the county’s new radio communications system has been significant.
Another improvement has been that if a deputy leaves the vehicle on a foot chase, the new radios enable the deputy to keep in contact beyond 10 or 15 feet, she said.
Volk said there are hardly any dead spots in the county now, with communication effective in about “99.9%” of the spots. When there is a problem, it usually is user error, he said.
Miller said the city also purchased a new radio system under the statewide system. It also has enhanced communications, he said.
Volk said with dispatch centers in Madison County and the City of Norfolk and all the enhanced equipment upgrades needed, it doesn’t make sense to keep both operating.
“It would be absolutely ridiculous for us to run two 911 centers in Madison County,” Volk said. “Basically you’d have most of the citizens in the City of Norfolk paying for two through their taxes.”
The trend is to regionalize dispatch centers, with most dispatching completed for multiple jurisdictions. This also should save some money over the long run, the sheriff said.
Miller said there are two projects happening now — including dispatch services being regionalized. In this area, Norfolk and South Sioux City have been designated to have the equipment and serve as hubs.
The equipment is so expensive, it doesn’t make sense for it to be located everywhere, Miller said. The equipment includes two T1 lines at each center and requires redundancies if a line goes down. There is no time frame necessarily on the regionalizaton, he said.
The second project is the City of Norfolk and Madison County combining dispatch centers, Miller said.
Neither entity has the physical space to do it, but the Norfolk Police Division is considering a renovation. If it isn’t done in time, there is space to make it work temporarily, the police chief said.
“We’re looking at going through a space needs assessment,” Miller said, “looking at not just our dispatch center but looking at our whole facility. I’m not ready to explain a lot of that already. I’m hoping in the next month to have a lot more details to share.”
Norfolk has three dispatch consoles, and Madison County has two. Combining those two departments into one should enable all the dispatch capabilities to be handled, Miller said.
“Todd (Volk) and I have been putting up with each other for 25 years, and this is just another step in us working together,” Miller said. “It’s been good. It’s nice to have Norfolk and Madison County working together not only on this stuff, but some other stuff as well. We have a great relationship, and we expect that to go on for years to come.”
Jon Downey, Madison County investigator, said in simplest terms with the regional system, there will be a main system in Norfolk and a redundant main system in South Sioux City. They will handle the direct call traffic and direct it where it needs to go, such as Wayne, Pierce, Dixon and Knox counties.
“If one of those hubs would go down, then the other one could take over all of it,” Downey said.
Norfolk and Madison County are the only places in the entire region with dispatch centers in the same county, so it makes sense to combine them, Downey said.
This also will help when the regionalization takes place, with one more step out of the way, Downey said.
Volk and others said both the county and city have discussed combining dispatching services. Because of expense, it makes sense, he said.
Troy Uhlir, county board chairman, said it has been a “wonderful working relationship” between all the entities involved, including the rural fire departments.
“I think we all have the end goal in mind of providing the best service possible at the least amount of cost to the public,” Uhlir said. “Like the sheriff said, we have two dispatch centers and really we’re overlaying with each other.”