WILLMAR -- When there's a fire, accident or medical need for an ambulance, the dispatchers in the Kandiyohi County law enforcement center in Willmar are the calm voice on the other end of the 911 call that sends help to where it's needed.
Sitting in the spacious dispatch center that has a hushed atmosphere and dimmed lights -- except for the glow of a bank of computer monitors -- the team of dispatchers work 24/7 to answer the calls of Kandiyohi County residents.
Within the next couple months, those dispatchers will also be listening to pleas for help from residents an hour away in Big Stone County and paging emergency personnel in towns like Ortonville.
In the works for nearly two years, officials from the two counties and the state are nearly done putting all the technical components of the plan in place that will allow Kandiyohi County to answer the 911 calls for Big Stone County on a contract basis.
Eventually Kandiyohi County will take over the administrative calls, like complaints about barking dogs or keys locked in cars.
"It's something that will work. It's just a matter of getting the different technical pieces put in place," said Kandiyohi County Sheriff Dan Hartog.
The transition could be implemented by the end of February or the beginning of March.
Dispatchers here have detailed street maps of Big Stone County. They'll also go on a road tour to become familiar with the lay of the land and see landmarks, which can be important when trying to decipher the frantic calls of an accident victim or give directions to an ambulance driver near the South Dakota border.
Meanwhile, Big Stone County Sheriff John Haukos and his four deputies have undergone training for the last month to use new squad-car laptops and Kandiyohi County's record-keeping system and database for police calls. The formal switch to that system happened at midnight on New Year's Eve.
Turning over the dispatch duties to Kandiyohi County will give his residents the quality service they deserve at a price they can afford, Haukos said.
Besides the county's "state-of-art communications system," Haukos said Kandiyohi County has "highly trained" dispatchers that have emergency medical training and are able to talk people through procedures, such as helping a woman give birth, until emergency personnel arrive.
"They can help the person help themselves," Haukos said.
That kind of service is important in a county like Big Stone where people are few and far between.
In the early 1970s Big Stone County had 11,000 people, said Haukos. Now it has 5,300.
"We out here on the western border are suffering serious depopulation, and people are being taxed as much as they can afford," he said.
"We're seeing an ever-increasing request for our services but an ever-dwindling population and taxes to support the services," Haukos said. "The citizens are taxed as far as they want to go."
In the "tough economic times," Haukos said the opportunity to partner with Kandiyohi County is the best option to save Big Stone County money and deliver "a better service" to residents.
Some Big Stone County residents are apprehensive about having calls answered in Willmar. "They have the visions of the call center in India," said Haukos, who is confident the system will work well for residents and law enforcement officers there.
Haukos and Hartog are also eager to have the ability to share data about crimes and suspects through the common database. That could make it easier to track mobile criminals who travel across county lines.
Because of the proximity to South Dakota and communication systems there, data could be shared across state lines.
Hartog said there is the possibility other area counties could also contract for dispatching services with Kandiyohi County. "With the economy, who knows what will happen. Maybe some other agencies will take a look at it and see if it would work out for them," Hartog said.
"The whole state is looking at how this works out," Haukos said.
The extra calls shouldn't be a big burden for Kandiyohi County dispatchers, Hartog said.
While Kandiyohi County easily handles 100 emergency calls a week, Big Stone County's average is about half a dozen a week.
Haukos has nothing but praise for Kandiyohi County and the help have offered to Big Stone County, especially since Kandiyohi County has little to gain. Although the contract has not been finalized, Kandiyohi County is not looking to make money.
Hartog said the contract will likely allow Kandiyohi County to hire another dispatcher, which will help increase services to both counties.
There will eventually be some job reductions in Big Stone County.
The state provided technical assistance and $50,000 help the counties consolidate the dispatch services. The state, which provides the trunk lines for county emergency communication systems, will save money if there are calls going to fewer counties, Hartog said.
Along with setting up the transfer of dispatch duties, both counties are getting prepared to implement the new 800-megahertz emergency radio system.
"There's a lot of exciting and good things happening," Haukos said.