La PORTE — They are the first voice a caller hears after dialing 911, a direct yet calm presence during a fraught situation.
They are the ones responsible for ensuring that La Porte County’s police officers, firefighters and emergency medical service personnel locate civilians in the midst of danger, navigating the many computer monitors in front of them to provide first-responders with the information they need to serve the public as quickly and safely as possible.
They, just like their counterparts on the field, must maintain their composure while facing a level of stress unimaginable for most, relying on their training and experience to deal with the many life-or-death situations they encounter on a daily basis.
The unsung heroes of the public safety world, the men and women who staff La Porte County’s E-911 Communications Center work behind the scenes to coordinate emergency response throughout the area. While they may not face the direct dangers their first-responder counterparts encounter in the field, dispatchers play an essential role in protecting the public, said Steve Alt, who oversees the operations of the department.
“In my opinion, I work for [the dispatchers] — they don’t work for me,” Alt said. “These are all highly professional people. I’m happy to be here.”
Alt, a 27-year veteran of the law enforcement world, took over as director of the E-911 center late last month. The former head of the Michigan City Police Department’s dispatch center prior to its merger with the county in 2008, the longtime La Porte County resident has spent the past several weeks getting to know the 30 dispatch center employees and familiarizing himself with his new duties to the public.
For the former police detective and training officer, the role presents a series of interesting challenges and new skills to learn, he said.
A native of Chesterton, Indiana, Alt and his family moved to Michigan City when he was 12 years old. After graduating from Rogers High School in 1985, Alt enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, where he programmed nuclear missile launch codes at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.
Four years later, Alt moved back to Michigan City. While studying accounting at Purdue University Northwest, Alt worked as a night auditor for a local hotel, where he met several off-duty police officers who did security at the business. The officers suggested Alt join the force himself, which the aspiring accountant did in 1991 after witnessing one of the policemen chase after a car thief outside the hotel one evening, he said.
“I thought [the police] would be an exciting job,” Alt said.
Alt served in several different positions throughout his nearly three decade career with the Michigan City Police Department, including as a patrolman, supervisor, detective and training coordinator — the last role earning him the nickname of “The Professor” at the station, Alt said. Among other distinctions he acquired during his career, the department named Alt its Officer of the Year in 2017.
Looking for a change of pace, Alt negotiated his retirement from the police department for this year. Although he initially considered a deferred retirement plan that would have required him to work an additional three years, Alt learned that La Porte County was seeking a new E-911 director and decided to put his hat in the ring for the position.
“I served in this capacity in Michigan City years ago,” he said. “I thought this would be a good fit for me.”
Last month, the county commissioners, council and 911 advisory board selected Alt to take over as director of the center.
Describing his new role as the “CEO" of the department, Alt is responsible for monitoring the operations of the E-911 center, including budget management and policy creation, he said. Of course, one of his main jobs is overseeing the dispatchers and other department personnel, who are responsible for handling every 911 call that is placed in La Porte County and for coordinating with the many public safety agencies located within its limits.
Last year alone, the E-911 center dispatched police within the county more than 107,000 times and EMS personnel more than 15,000 times, Alt said.
To help ease the burden on his dispatchers, one of Alt’s goals is to hire additional staff, he said. He would like to create a dedicated call desk as well, which would give other staff members greater freedom to respond to requests from public safety personnel.
“I want to make their jobs as least stressful as possible, but still have them perform the same high level of service,” Alt said.
For now, “The Professor” just wants to learn as much as he can in order to become a better leader for the department, he said. To that end, Alt plans to attend a weeklong training certification seminar intended for recently-hired 911 center managers in Boston next month.
The veteran public safety official also thanked county leaders for providing him with the opportunity to take the dispatch center to the next level.
“A happy dispatcher is a good dispatcher,” Alt said. “I want to help them do the best job possible, and I want citizens and visitors of La Porte County to feel safe. I want them to know that if they ever need the help of the police, the fire department or EMS, they will be taken care of quickly.”