Lawrence County took over the emergency dispatching center in spring 1998.
By LAURE CIOFFI
VINDICATOR NEW CASTLE BUREAU
NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- Mary Lou Gallatin and Dedra Gettings like to joke that they grew up with the Lawrence County Emergency Operations Center.
The two New Castle women -- along with John Richey -- were there when the center started April 1, 1982, as a small dispatching operation for only a few townships. They used a multiple telephone line, kept all records by paper and had one person working each shift.
In 20 years, the Lawrence County Emergency Operations Center has grown into a state-of-the-art operation with computers, three to four people working on any shift and handling emergency calls for most of Lawrence County. But getting to that point wasn't easy, early organizers said.
What changed things: It started out of a simple need for someone to dispatch police and fire when private dispatcher Mary Crisswell of Union Township decided to retire.
"She had a switchboard in her house and she ate and slept dispatching. But in about November 1981, she wrote us a letter indicating she wanted to retire. We didn't have much of a choice after that," said John DiCola, Neshannock Township fire chief and supervisor.
DiCola and fire and police chiefs from Union, Hickory, North Beaver, Mahoning and Scott townships and South New Castle Borough met weekly from the time Crisswell gave her notice.
They considered hiring another private dispatching service, but could see the same problem occurring years down the road when that person decided to retire.
"A small number of departments thought the way to go was to establish a central answering system, develop a board of directors and hire dispatchers," DiCola said.
Gallatin and Gettings remember DiCola's giving them their first lessons in dispatching at the Neshannock Township building.
Getting a site: But before the venture could get off the ground, the small group of fire and police officials decided they needed a nonpolitical location to house the center.
Jim Houston, then fire chief of Hickory Township Volunteer Fire Department, helped secure a spot at the Scottish Rite Cathedral in New Castle, which had once housed a radio station.
Volunteers helped clean and build what was necessary to have a dispatching center. Area companies also donated goods, he said.
And once dispatching started, fire chiefs and police volunteered to work with the dispatchers, Houston said.
The operation was financed by a contribution from each municipality based on population.
But the size of the township had nothing to do with that community's input on the dispatching center. Everyone had equal representation on the board of directors, Houston said.
"Little Volant has maybe 200 people and Neshannock had 8,000, but they had the same voting power," he said.
The center met several other milestones over the years including computerization, adding 911 service and taking over dispatching for most of the communities in the county.
How it grew: Frank Janetti, the county's current 911 director, said they also started adding more dispatchers to each shift and more office space. LEOC now occupies several rooms on the second floor of the Scottish Rite Cathedral.
In addition to handling emergency calls, the dispatchers have many other duties including running license plate numbers for police officers and monitoring the New Castle Municipal building through a video relay.
Municipal leaders realized by the late 1990s that LEOC had to become part of county government. The advent of 911 brought strict regulations for dispatcher training and even stricter regulations about funding that could not be handled by the part-time board of directors and one full-time manager.
The county took over the operation in spring 1998 and is now funded by a mandatory $1.25 charge for each telephone line in the county.
LEOC handles dispatching for all fire and police in Lawrence County except Ellwood City. That community is expected to come on board sometime later this year.
Those involved in the early days of LEOC look back fondly.
"Many of us spent a lot of time researching it so we could come up with the right decision. We were probably 10 years ahead of a lot of other counties," DiCola said.