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Published: Saturday, 6/12/2010

Northwood dispatch team playing host to Lake Twp.

BY BRIDGET THARP
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Lake Township dispatcher Faye Balsmeyer, foreground, works from the Northwood dispatch center. At rear are Northwood dispatch supervisor Amy Stribrny, left, and dispatcher Nicole Romstadt. Lake Township dispatcher Faye Balsmeyer, foreground, works from the Northwood dispatch center. At rear are Northwood dispatch supervisor Amy Stribrny, left, and dispatcher Nicole Romstadt.
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After the tornado wiped out the Lake Township police and administration building, the Northwood Police Department made room in its own facility for the township's police dispatchers.

The temporary accommodations are, well, cozy. Two township dispatchers share a room normally staffed by two Northwood dispatchers.

Space is tight. Learning another department's technology has been tricky. Call volume is higher than ever.

Despite the obvious challenges, dispatchers from both departments admit the setup isn't so bad.

"They've just been great," Lake Township police and fire dispatcher Shirley Knitz said.

Lake Township is still days away from shifting its dispatchers into new headquarters in the former Ohio Highway Patrol post on Lemoyne Road, but the arrangement seems to be working in the meantime, Lake Township Police Chief Mark Hummer said.

"You have a job to do, and it does make it a little bit different when the people that are going to rescue you lose their base of communications," Chief Hummer said.

Last Saturday night, Chief Hummer heard about the impending storm and called Lake Township dispatch. He was waiting on his cell phone when the tornado smashed into the building.

"They said, 'Everything appears to be OK,' and put me on hold," he said. "Then, another dispatcher picked up and said, 'Chief, the building is starting to shake.'"

Two paramedics stationed on the west side of the building saw the funnel cloud headed toward them, and used the emergency radio to notify the dispatchers in the same building. The two dispatchers took cover in a closet just moments before the building was slammed, Chief Hummer said.

"They climbed out of the rubble. When I got there, they were standing in the parking lot," he said.

All the emergency personnel in the building lost their personal vehicles, Chief Hummer said. The next day, Ms. Knitz found one of their license plates in the yard of her Curtice home miles away.

"I thanked God so many times that I wasn't working," Ms. Knitz said. "I would have had a heart attack right there."

Lake Township dispatcher Faye Balsmeyer said losing the building was emotional.

She couldn't bring herself to return to the ruins to get her belongings, and had another dispatcher claim them for her.

The crew kept working, shifting operations to Millbury Fire Station No. 2.

"Those dispatchers didn't leave their posts until the building was disintegrating around them. They're true heroes. Everyone involved in this are heroes," Chief Hummer said.

By Monday, the dispatchers had moved again. Northwood police made some room in their station. It turned out the Lake Township dispatchers could use the help.

Northwood Police Detective Tina Sigler stepped in to help that day, and said the department was flooded with calls from family members of those unaccounted for in the storm as well as volunteers wondering how to help.

One out-of-town caller asked officers to check on his aunt and uncle in the Indian Creek subdivision off East Broadway in Moline but couldn't remember their address. It was hard not to get emotional when the caller broke down.

"We were on the phone for a while," Detective Sigler said.

Meanwhile, Lake Township dispatchers were left to work without most of their own equipment. Among other problems, that meant learning a different computer system to dispatch calls.

Northwood Police dispatch supervisor Amy Stribrny said sharing the workload with the guest dispatchers has been a challenge.

"Overwhelming is a good way to describe it," Ms. Stribrny said.

Chief Hummer acknowledges that combining forces likely lessened the work load for all involved.

Though the township dispatchers say they are excited to be moving into their new digs, they say they'll miss the camaraderie of their Northwood counterparts.

"The feeling of imposing, that's what I feel bad about," Ms. Knitz said. "I'm looking forward to just getting back to our own atmosphere."

Contact Bridget Tharp at:

btharp@theblade.com

or 419-724-6086.



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