Perry Polinski, Evanston’s first Civilian Communications Coordinator, was included among the City’s recent budget cuts.

When Perry Polinski started in his emergency dispatcher’s job in January of 1981, the position was referred to as a “communications operator.”

Mr. Polinski and others worked out of the first floor, bunched in with other services at the Evanston Police Department, located at 1454 Elmwood Ave. 

Back then, on calls for emergency service, all residents had was basic 911, which simply routed any 911 emergency call from Evanston to the Police Department.

Mr. Polinski was among the latest group of City of Evanston employees who were laid off or whose positions were eliminated last month in the City’s move to reduce an estimated $12 million shortfall fueled by the COVID-19 crisis.

Officials announced the latest cuts but did not name any of the employees in reporting on their progress in reducing the deficit.

As the City’s first civilian Communications Coordinator, Mr. Polinski played an integral part in shaping the current Enhanced 911 emergency system, which serves as a lynchpin to quick response on emergency police and fire calls.

 When he started in the bureau, in 1981, things were much different from what they are now. These days, members of the City’s 16-member telecommunications team go through a six-month training period.

“When I was in training,” he recalled, “I was trained by a trainer who had her feet up on the desk and a paperback novel in her hand the whole time. Eventually, I became a Communications Training Officer and, to address this type of informal training, in 1989, I developed the first comprehensive Communications Operator Training and Evaluation Program and received a Department commendation.”

Back then, “we had a time clock, like you’d see on a factory wall,” Mr. Polinski said, “and we had what was referred to as hard cards. The hard cards would have pre-printed case numbers on them and then fields that you manually filled in by hand writing information like the complaint, the address of the incident, complainant, etc.

 “As each call was received and dispatched, and an officer arrived on scene and completed the assignment, the hard card was date/time stamped. This is how we kept track of all the calls and maintained a permanent record.”

The Case of the Moaning Woman

 The drawbacks of the system were illustrated by an early incident. Mr. Polinski was only a few months into his job, working the midnight shift, when he received a call where the only sound coming over the emergency line was of someone moaning.

“So you know your hair stands up on the back of your neck,” he said. “This was well before caller ID, and other ways to determine a caller’s location in the event that callers were unable to tell you where they were. You had to trap the line by placing the caller on hold,” Mr. Polinski said, “and then on a separate line, call the central office of the phone company, which was over there and still is on Chicago Avenue. “And you would give them the specific 911trunk number that the call came in on, and they would go into their system and looked up to determine where the call came from. And that could take anywhere from five to 15 minutes – the process was not instantaneous like it is today.”

During that time, Mr. Polinski had to keep the initial call on hold to allow the phone company to trace it and could not switch back to the open line to continue hearing what was going on.

“At any rate, they [the phone company] came back with the address – it was a townhouse, as I recall,” he related. “We didn’t have a unit number, so I got back on the phone and, you know, dispatched police units because we didn’t know what we had. And I continued to listen, trying to get someone’s attention, and someone to talk to me, and all I could hear was the moaning.”

Mr. Polinski continued to hold the line open, with the moaning sound in the background, as police went around the townhouse, knocking at each of the building’s doors with their nightsticks “until I could hear it through the phone and we knew we had the right town house,” he said.

The moaning was coming from an 83-year-old woman who was deaf and suffering from severe internal bleeding, Mr. Polinski learned later, in a grateful letter he received from the woman’s daughter.

Big Changes to the System

In the mid-1990s, the City moved to an Enhanced 911 system, where telecommunicators at their consoles could automatically capture the address, telephone number, and subscriber’s name on all incoming emergency calls.

During the early 1990s, voters overwhelmingly approved an increase in the monthly surcharge, enabling the City to construct a new 911 Communications Center on the second floor of the Police Department and computerize police and fire communications – such as putting mobile terminals in squad cars.

“So we went from basic,” said Mr. Polinski, “which just got the caller to the appropriate 911 Center, to enhanced, which got the caller to the appropriate 911 Center and delivered the caller’s location information (caller ID) in the event that they were unable to tell us where they were” – as in the case of the moaning woman.

The training, as well as number of dispatchers, also grew during that period.

“Oh my goodness, when I first started it wasn’t unusual for you to find yourself working the midnight shift alone,” said Mr. Polinski. “And then the other two shifts, 7 to 3 and 3 to 11, had two people assigned.”

 Staffing was so barebones in those days that “you’d eat your lunch at the console; you’d run to the bathroom and come running out,” Mr. Polinski recalled. “You just didn’t get any relief.”

The Advent of Cell Phones

In July, 1999, Mr. Polinski was promoted to the Communications Coordinator position that formerly had been filled by a sworn police officer. Not long after that, cellular phones had begun replacing landline phones and wireless 911 was implemented in 2000. This allowed the 911Communications Center to start receiving 911calls from cell phones.

Mr. Polinski worked with the city’s 911service provider, which at the time was SBC, “and each of the wireless carriers to formalize agreements and configure call routing to receive 911 calls from cell phones.”

The need for the service was highlighted in an Aug. 3, 2001, incident when Rashidi Wheeler, a 22-year-old Northwestern University football player, died while participating in a practice drill by the lake.

Cellular 911 was in its infancy, at the time, said Mr. Polinski, and reception limited, especially along the lakefront. Over the years, wireless carriers worked to expand coverage in this area and fill in the gaps.

Northwestern, in general, was a big focus of the City’s in creating an overlapping system.

At the time, the University used a blue-light phone system, with emergency calls going straight to the university’s police department, Mr. Polinski said.

The Illinois Commerce Commission, then overseeing 911in the state, eventually stepped in, maintaining that calls had to go to a 911Communications Center that dispatched police, fire and emergency medical service.

And so as a result of that, the university had to cut over all their emergency calls to the Evanston Police Department’s 911 Center, essentially an overhaul of the campus system, “because they had to identify each and every location a call could potentially come from through campus addressing,” Mr. Polinski said.

The Northwestern Police Department, thus, became a secondary 911Communications Center under Evanston’s umbrella, he said.

Another project involved LEADS (Law Enforcement Agencies Data System), which linked the police department to the state and national law enforcement network.

That system was upgraded in 2004, with the department working with the state to upgrade to a web-based platform. “That allowed us to extend the system out to office desktops and laptops in the patrol cars,” Mr. Polinski said.

In 2006, Mr. Polinski facilitated a major expansion of the Fire Department’s radio system. In 2010, he oversaw an extensive upgrade of the entire 911 Communications Center, which included new console furniture, 911 phone system and radio software.

More recently, EMD (Emergency Medical Dispatch), which allows telecommunicators to provide emergency callers requesting an ambulance with pre-arrival instructions, was implemented.

Before the call laying him off, Mr. Polinski and other officials were working on STARCOM21, a public/private partnership between the State of Illinois and Motorola Solutions to enable seamless, interoperable communications among State, local and federal government users. 

Mr. Polinski stressed that he was not alone on those and other projects.

“To keep abreast of regulatory issues, the advancements in technology, this takes a team – by no means did I ever accomplish any of this stuff by myself. You know, you’re working with vendors; you’re working with contractors, our own staff, the I.T. Department in the City. My position was basically oversight, keep the things moving, but there were a lot of people in the background certainly involved in these things.”

That also applied to his team of dispatchers.

“We ran a pretty tight ship as far as making sure our people not just came to work on time, but followed procedures,”

Mr. Polinski said, adding “all the years I ran the center I can’t remember a lawsuit being filed because of something someone out of the 911center did.”

A Phone Call

Mr. Polinski said the City call on Aug. 28, two hours before his work day ended, informing him he was being laid off, came “out of the blue.”

Receiving a phone call from Jennifer Lin, the City’s Human Resources Division manager and Police Chief Demitrous Cook, Mr. Polinski was informed he was being laid off, effective immediately.

Asked about the decision, Chief Cook said, “Perry is probably one of the best communication people in Illinois. Everybody knows him. It’s just unfortunate the City with the budget had to let him go.”

Mr. Polinski worked under Jay Parrott, when Mr. Parrot was the Evanston department’s Deputy Chief of Support Services. Mr. Parrott is now the Police Chief in Lincolnwood.

 “Perry knew every aspect of the emergency communications from the ground up,” said Chief Parrott. Mr. Polinski was “a dedicated asset to the police and fire departments in addition to being a resident of the City of Evanston,” he noted.

Mr. Polinski, who recently turned 62, arranged to convert sick time to service time, and reaching the 40-year mark, and opted to retire rather than be laid off.

A few days after the phone call, Ms. Lin arranged to deliver a plaque to Mr. Polinski’s home, slipping it inside his screen door.

The plaque, bearing the City’s lighthouse logo, thanked Mr. Polinski for his 39+ years of service with the City.

Asked about how the process was handled, Mr. Polinski, a longtime resident of the City, admitted he was a little “flabbergasted” about the little notice given, and expressed disappointment that no conversations had taken place about a transition plan.

“I am certain that there are a few things that I would have liked to have had an opportunity to pass along to somebody else, because I had a long established process in place,” he said.

For example, Mr. Polinski served as a member of, and staff to, the Evanston Emergency Telephone System Board since 2008. In that role, he kept the board up to date on public safety communications industry standards, advances in technology and regulatory issues, as well as presenting expense proposals to the Board and the annual budget for approval.

His retirement was approved to take place with Monday, Sept. 1 his last day. “So that Monday I went in and just spent the whole day, cleaning my office out and that was it,” he said.

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.