|| Is This What They Call Progress?
There is a lot to be said for a telegraphy dispatch system that had overlapped two centuries, had built in safe guards and redundancies that would be an engineering nightmare, even by today’s standards. The simplicity, coupled with the vast knowledge of dispatching and monitoring of a large scale Fire Department is a testament to its design and the men who made it work. It was the last functioning telegraph system in the world, before its demise in 1996. As this article will show, not everyone was as happy with the new system and its potentially disastrous effects on public safety as we know it.
Many experts had made the argument that Chicago needed a computer system for fire dispatching. Of course like any new idea proposed, it was met with opposition. Could a computer-aided dispatch really work this time? Many of the dispatchers had lived through two failed attempts at “improving” the system. First, the Ambulance Dispatch Office was created and located on the first floor of the Englewood Fire alarm Office (6351 S. Wentworth). It was basically a status monitor that kept track of pertinent information regarding dispatch, on the scene and other specific times. It made no recommendations for dispatching. A skeleton crew of calls takers and dispatchers staffed it. While most of the personnel were assigned there, many others were on a short-term detail, meaning unfamiliarity with the system. There were shortcomings and opposition in the field as well. The system relied on mobile units updating their status with “Modat” buttons. This proved unreliable at best. After a couple years of service the center was closed and dispatching was returned to the old system, both at Main and Englewood.
The next attempt at improvement would come in 1984 with the opening of the “C.A.D.” Center at Engine 25’s old quarters, at 543 W. Taylor St. This system was very similar to the first failed system. It had been purchased many years prior to its implementation, which created a whole new set of problems. According to Deputy Fire Commissioner Robert Hart, “this system is a 1978 Cadillac that’s never been driven”! Main and Englewood would be combined into one dispatch location. Once again, the computer did not make dispatch recommendations. It was another status keeper. It was decided after a year, to close this dispatch center and again return to Main and Englewood.
In the mid 1990’s the city once again decided to commit to a computer aided dispatch center and combine it with Police communications at 1411 W. Madison St. Two companies were in competition for the 90 million dollar bid. It was decided to give the contract to Fluor-Daniel Corporation over Ameritech. As with any project of this scale, there were overages on budget and time constraints. The budget for the project had grown to over 300 million dollars. They were having software problems. The training was spotty at best. The politics had started to dictate when the center would “open” officially. The decades old Box Card system was revamped by an outside consultant, and for the first time in history, the closest companies were not always sent to an alarm due to a computer algorithm choosing responses over common sense.
The Fire Alarm Dispatch would move in ready or not. The dispatch floor was nothing more than picnic tables shoved together to hold maps, tabs, schedules and any other paperwork such as department orders, etc. The call takers were now segregated from the dispatch operation, removing them from pertinent communications with dispatchers. The large lighted status map proved worthless as dispatchers used magnets on map boards to keep track of companies. The computer wasn’t even turned on for the first year because of so many software problems. They were dispatching and keeping status the old fashion way. Just as they had done for all those years before, only this time in a “state of the art facility.”
When the computer finally came online, dispatchers had to double and triple check the recommendations made by the computer because the responses were so wrong. Remember, you have to be smarter than the computer to know when it’s wrong! Even “live voice” communications was replaced by a synthesized, robotic voice that had a Swedish accent! Every attempt was made to cover this up from the media, the Mayor and anyone else who would potentially raise an eyebrow. If it hadn’t been for the dedication and knowledge of the “old timers” the new system would have fallen on its face. Eventually, it was accepted by the seasoned dispatchers that the system was here to stay. Of course newly hired or promoted people wouldn’t know the difference regarding the shortcomings of this new system. In my opinion, the biggest losers were the citizens of the City.
There was never anything more exciting than to watch a busy night play out in the old Fire Alarm Office. Men took pride in memorizing still districts. The ability to look up the closest box card without even looking at a map, the knowledge of what structures occupied any street corner in the city. Hearing a fire box transmitted into the office and immediately “knowing “ the location. Hand “striking” an alarm on the register. Trying to listen to three company returns coming in at the same time and let’s not forget the human element and the banter between the Fire Alarm Office and the fireman on the other end of the radio or amplifier. Everyone knew their job and did it. This was in a time and place where every firehouse knew what was happening at every other firehouse because of the telegraph system. Unlike now, where there seems to be a communications “black hole.” Although I didn’t work the day the Fire Alarm Office opened, I did work it the day it closed. It was like watching an old friend die. I sent people home two at a time, until the new 911 Center gradually took control. I watched as the cars left the parking lot, never to return again and then, I was the only one left. I looked around at all the history that had made that place what it was. Now the day had come. I was locking the door for the last time.
I feel fortunate to have worked in one of the most organized, reliable, and interesting departments of the City. I was the last “old school” dispatcher hired by Commissioner Quinn. I worked under the most experienced and intelligent people that you could ever imagine. People that trained me, like Ken Little who could tell you everything about every street or firehouse in the city. People like Art Benker, who took control of each incident and directed field personnel and fire alarm staff like no other Senior could and who worked more disasters than many of the members in the field, including his direction of the “Loop Flood” incident. Jack Turner who was in my estimation a total genius when it came to dispatching, electrical troubleshooting, or history of the job. I had the good fortune of working with Bill Bingham, who took the first call for the Our Lady of the Angels fire. He was more than happy to share his recollections with me. Dan Evans, who was just as much a pleasure to watch on the dispatch floor as Liberace’ was in concert! I owe my 23 years of success to these and many more people who took the time to care, and pass down the age old procedures and history, so that it would carry into the next generation.
Senior Fire Alarm Operator
Chicago Fire Dept. Ret.
(R.I.P. April 3, 2009)