A creaky-looking leather chair. A large easel with a map of Harford County. A worn, wooden desk, on which rests a rotary phone, a tube radio, and a reel-to-reel recorder. Yesterday, this was the county’s emergency operations and dispatch center in downtown Bel Air.
Today, the center occupies a low-slung building in Hickory, a decades-old converted civil defense center with a leaky roof, storage closets converted into offices, and stuffed with computer and radio equipment.
Tomorrow, the county’s emergency operations department hopes it will occupy a new, rebuilt $41 million center at the same Hickory location, which will offer more space for the 911 dispatch center, hazardous materials team, and radio operations.
“The architects all told us the same thing, it would be cheaper to build a new building than to renovate portions of this building that were more than 50 years old,” said Rick Ayers, deputy manager with the county’s Division of Emergency Operations. “Their recommendations were all pretty much the same, we needed to triple our space to meet current needs and for the next 25 years.”
Though officially called the Harford County Emergency Operations Center, the building houses both the emergency command center, used occasionally in the event of natural or man-made disasters, and the much busier 911 dispatch center. Last year, handled 276,593 911 calls, up from 35,623 in 1993, according to dispatch center shift manager Mike Sherman.
But Ayers said the building, the oldest part of which was first used as a dispatch center in the 1960s, is showing its age. Ayers said cracks have been found in the building’s foundation, and parts of its foundation walls have even shifted. Black mold from water leaks has been found throughout the building, he said, even in the emergency command room itself.
“We had water pouring in during Hurricane Irene,” he said. “We couldn’t stop it.”
The county’s answer has been a massive two-phase project to tear down and replace virtually all of the existing structures at the site, including the hazmat team space which dates to the early 1980s, and the “radio shop.” The project began with feasibility studies in 2004 and 2007, Ayers said, with designs now submitted and approved.
Ayers said construction would occur in two phases, to avoid a loss of dispatch and emergency management capability. The first phase would move the hazmat team to space at the Forest Hill Airpark rented but recently vacated by Sheriff’s Office units which moved to the new southern precinct. Workers would then tear down the hazmat building, and build a new 911 dispatch center and emergency command center at that location. The second would remove the existing emergency operations center building and construct a new hazmat building and radio operations center.
A total of $6 million was appropriated in the county’s 2009 budget to support the project, and an additional $20 million is sought under County Executive David Craig’s 2013 budget. Plans call for an additional $5.6 million to be appropriated in 2014, and $10.1 million in 2015.
The total of $41 million for construction has caused some critics to question the use of county funds which they say are sorely needed elsewhere. But Ayers countered that delays in construction could cause the project to cost even more—for example, the current plans were drawn up under a stormwater management waiver, which circumvents new, more restrictive regulations. If that waiver expires, he said, plans may need to be redrawn at additional cost, and the revised project may cost even more.
“If we don’t move forward now…we really face almost $1 million in additional design and construction costs for each year we delay,” Ayers said. “We’re ready to go.”
While plans for a new center inch forward, three shifts of dispatchers continue their work inside a large, darkened room at the front of the existing building. The room is kept dark, the dispatchers said, to help ease the strain of looking at computer monitors around the clock. But the effect gives the two-tiered room a command-and-control feel, as dispatchers take calls from around the county and send fire, EMS, and Sheriff’s Office units to the rescue. (Aberdeen, Bel Air, and Havre de Grace town police are dispatched by each of those municipalities.)
The dispatch center is broken down into “pods”; the largest is the 911 group, which includes 11 computer banks spanning the entire length of the room. Below them, a fire group and police group flank a seven-monitor workstation, occupied by the shift’s manager. On a quiet Tuesday night, only a handful of 911 dispatchers are on duty, but Sherman said any of the fire or EMS group can be pulled into working 911 calls during busy times.
Police and fire “pod” dispatchers monitor communications for those services, responding to requests for information and providing responders with details of the location and caller they’re heading toward. Above them, the 911 dispatchers sit in front of banks of monitors which display the location of each incoming call, any previous incidents connected to that address, and the status of all active calls for service around the county, among an avalanche of other information.
“The technology is such that if you’re calling from I-95, I can see where you’re going,” Sherman said.
But, he added, the technology can’t do it all. The dispatchers are trained to remain calm while working through a series of prompts, confirming the caller’s location and garnering details about their emergency. Sherman said the Harford County dispatch center is one of only two dispatch centers worldwide certified in fire, police and medical protocols by the company Medical Priority. The detailed prompts allow even dispatchers without fire or EMS training to quickly provide first aid or safety information while responders are en route.
Sherman offered the following tips for callers of 911 to follow:
–Know your address and a cross street—not just for your home, but for your workplace as well. “They [the dispatcher] may have it on their screen, but we’re going to ask.”
–Don’t use police or fire jargon. Speak simply and plainly.
–Let the dispatcher lead. Sherman said there’s an order to the questions asked, as a dispatcher moves through various steps.
–Follow all directions.
Remaining calm and professional is key for dispatchers, Sherman said, especially when many callers are anything but. He played three sample 911 calls for members of the class: one was a simple request for assistance for a rider that had fallen off a horse, but the other two were much more dramatic. In one, a husband called to report his wife, who he said was nine months pregnant, had been badly burned in a home grease fire. In the other, wrenching call, a woman called in hysterics, and was unintelligible until the dispatcher began to slowly get details of her situation—she had found a loved one unresponsive and, as it turned out, deceased.
Such calls happen hundreds of thousands of time each year. Sherman mentioned the drastic increase in emergency calls since he began as a dispatcher with the Bel Air Police Department 32 years ago, moving to countywide dispatching 10 years later. “Business is good,” one member of the Citizens Police Academy commented.
“Business is too good,” Sherman said. “And every full moon, it gets even better.”
Next Week: A trip to the Sheriff’s Office’s new southern precinct, including emergency vehicle operation, an explanation of the complaint process and the use of force, and details about the crisis negotiation team and a demonstration.