Imagine 14 telephone lines sitting on a desk. On the other end of every line is someone with an emergency. Now, add 23 nonemergency lines to that same desk.
For Joe Piper and his team of emergency telecommunicators, this is an everyday reality. Since Piper, deputy director at Boone County Joint Communications, started working at the 911 center 23 years ago, he’s seen countless babies delivered over the phone, the popularization of cellphones more than double the center’s call volume and, most recently, Joint Communications pass from the hands of the city to the county.
At the communications center there are two essential roles: call takers and call dispatchers. Call takers answer when a 911 call is made and then pass that information along to call dispatchers. Dispatchers then contact emergency responders. Dispatchers are also responsible for assisting responders in the field, whether it is running a background check on a suspect or running a license plate number at a traffic stop.
It’s a hectic job, one that is currently being conducted in a cramped room attached to the police station downtown off of Seventh and Broadway.
“This building was never designed for this,” Piper says. “From the day we moved in, we had growth problems.” A single desk sits in the corner of the shared police station and Joint Communications break room. This desk is the only area in the office where emergency telecommunicators can complete the regular continued training required for the job. Administrators work in tiny offices, piled high with storage. The center’s server rooms are spread out between a maze of hallways and stairwells. Joint Communication’s main storage is crammed into an unassuming corner of the Columbia Police Department’s evidence locker.
“It’s clear as soon as you step into that building that it was not made for, and it cannot meet, the center’s needs today,” says Boone County Commissioner Dan Atwill.
But that’s all about to change.
Working out logistics
In the fall of 2012, the City of Columbia proposed a major overhaul of the 911 center and the Office of Emergency Management.
Until Proposition 1 was passed on the ballot in April 2013, the City of Columbia and Boone County had an agreement as far as emergency communications were concerned. The city would bear the majority of the cost, around $2 million per year, of operating the 911 center, the Office of Emergency management and all other emergency communications. Surrounding communities, as well as the Sheriff’s Department, would use Columbia’s Joint Communications and OEM centers, and in turn, Boone County would pay for the remaining operational costs. As the county and the city continued to expand, and it was clear that changes needed to be made to the way emergency communication was conducted, discussions on how the city was going to pay for updates started to arise.
“The city can’t impose taxing authority on outlying communities; they can only impose obligations within Columbia,” Atwill says. Because of this, it was decided mutually between the city and the county that an entire restructuring was needed. First, city employees working for Joint Communications and the Office of Emergency Management would become county employees. With the passing of Proposition 1, a three-eighths-cent sales tax would be imposed on the entire county, which would help bring in revenue for the new center.
Now, two years later, serious headway is starting to be made on the center’s construction. The county approved a $9.9 million bid from Little Dixie Construction in January. That same month, bonds were issued, expected to bring in more than $13 million in revenue for the project. If all goes as planned, Atwill hopes construction will be completed in early 2016.
Early estimates for the project assessed that facility construction would cost roughly $11.3 million. However, between the construction bid and the approximate $4 million already paid to architects and planners, the base construction cost estimate has jumped to $14.1 million, with an additional $8 million being spent on IT hardware, software and other equipment. The county has also projected an annual recurring cost of $8.6 million for facility operations.
“We have three main problems with the current Joint Communications and Office of Emergency Management centers: too small of spaces, outdated equipment and the inability to accommodate a growing community,” Atwill says, “but all of that will be fixed with the new center.”
The new 25,000-square-foot facility, which will be constructed north of Columbia near the Sheriff’s Department campus, will include ample space for the daily operations of both Joint Communications and the Office of Emergency Management, as well as space designated for operations during an emergency. Unlike in previous facilities, there will be specific training and conference room areas. There will also be ample office space provided for administration as well as IT and technology support staff. Finally, the facility will have a large room designated for the Emergency Operations Center, where, in the case of a national, state or countywide emergency, officials would meet to plan evacuation or disaster management efforts.
“Unlike facilities we’ve been in before, the new building was designed with growth in mind so we don’t have to do this again in the next 15 years,” Piper says.
In addition to the space provided, the new facility will feature replacements or updates of all of Joint Communications’ current technology. Piper says because the equipment is running at full capacity 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it can get worn out fairly quickly. He hopes to be able to grow to meet changing emergency communication technology trends, including text messaging and video calling.
The staff at Joint Communications, in particular the call takers and call dispatchers, will also continue to grow. At the size of the staff now, it is not uncommon to have shifts where only one call taker is present. “To fill one call-taking position, it takes five people because obviously one person can’t do that job at all times,” Piper says. He hopes that in coming months, with the additional space and training areas, Joint Communications will be able to hire and train enough emergency telecommunicators to have three call takers working each shift.
As Piper and the rest of the Joint Communications team look ahead to the future, they have one additional challenge they need to face: the day they move from their current offices to the new facility.
“Obviously, we can’t just turn off 911 for a day while we make the move, so there will probably be a month or so where both facilities are operating simultaneously,” Atwill says. The team hopes to make the transition as smooth as possible and without any interruption to the services it provides. This will mean running multiple tests to make sure all the new servers are working at top capacity and doing numerous system checks and facilitating training with the new equipment before the lights at the current center are turned off for good.
Both Atwill and Piper agree their No. 1 priority is the person in need on the other end of the line and making the transition so seamless that he or she has no idea there’s a move taking place. Piper believes the new building, the updated equipment and the additional staff are all there to serve one purpose: the customers they help.
“It all boils down to more responsiveness to the community,” Piper says.