Illinois Tollway dispatch center sends unusual aid: Care packages to hurricane-hit Florida 911 center

Illinois Tollway dispatch center sends unusual aid - Care packages to hurricane-hit Florida 911 center

Illinois Tollway telecommunicators are used to handling emergencies and sending help—they answer 911 calls and other requests for assistance from drivers using the Tollway system.
But staffers at the Tollway dispatch center recently responded to an emergency situation far from the Tollway system, assisting a 911 center in a Florida county slammed in September by Hurricane Ian.
They couldn’t dispatch H.E.L.P. trucks or police assistance, but Tollway telecommunications staffers dipped into their own pockets and collected money to send the beleaguered Highlands County Sheriff’s Office dispatch center a care package of meals from Portillo’s—including the Italian beef sandwiches, Chicago-style hotdogs, Polish sausages, and chocolate cake made famous by the Chicago-based restaurant chain.
“Hopefully, this will lift their spirits a little bit,” Tollway Dispatch Manager Craig Lundt said of the culinary care packages that went out earlier this month “We want them to know we’re thinking of them and will support them however we can.”
Dispatchers in Highlands County were touched by the support they received from an agency so far away, said Shane Smith, dispatch director for Highlands County, which is about 75 miles inland from the Gulf Coast where Ian first made landfall.
“It was definitely appreciated here,” Smith said. “It’s a really sweet thing for them to do for us.”
Her agency had a rough time when the hurricane swept through—her dispatch center lost all telephone, internet and cell phone service for a short time. Even the emergency satellite phones kept for those type of situations briefly didn’t work.
“It was creepy because no phones were ringing for a while,” Smith said, recalling that the hurricane shutters on the building were shaking so violently she thought they might tear loose.
And before and after the communications shutdown, her dispatchers were frustrated because storm conditions were so fierce that they couldn’t safely dispatch emergency responders immediately to those callers asking for help.
“Our job is to send help to people who need it,” Smith said. “It’s really difficult to have to tell someone ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you right now.”
The Tollway’s dispatch center reached out to Highlands County when the national Association of Public Communications Officials launched an adopt-a-center program to provide aid and encouragement to hard-hit dispatch center in Florida.
While Lundt said his team quickly sent meals from Portillo’s, they also followed up, assembling a second round of care packages went out a few days later, containing snacks, cleaning supplies and other practical items the Highlands County dispatch center likely will need as it moves from Hurricane Ian.
Those packages also contain cards offering good wishes and support from students at the Science Academy of Chicago, where Lundt’s wife, Stephanie Alba, teaches. 
“Dispatchers continuously answer the call no matter whoever needs our help,” Lundt said. “We have an incredible team of dedicated professionals here who always come together in times of need. But that's what makes dispatchers—wherever they’re working--a special group of people.”