New 911 center to up the game for Haywood emergency response
A $3 million project to build a central 911 dispatching center inside the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office aims to reduce response times for police, fire and rescue calls.
“It will provide a better, quicker, safer response for the citizens of Haywood County,” said Chief Deputy Jeff Haynes with the Haywood Sheriff’s Office. “When they pick the phone up and hit 911, they will get a rapid, efficient response. And that’s what we need to be zeroed in on at the end of the day.”
The 911 center is now housed in a cramped, off-site building across town. It will be brought under the same roof as the sheriff’s office and get all new equipment and technology.
The project will be paid for almost entirely by a $2.7 million state grant from N.C. 911 funds, a pot of money collected through a 911 surcharge tacked onto the monthly phone bills of every cell and landline customer. Haywood got one of four grants statewide awarded from the pool this year.
“The grant will enable us to enhance and streamline services, as well as work together more efficiently with all emergency responders,” said Haywood Sheriff Greg Christopher. “The result will be overall better emergency service to help ensure the safety of Haywood County citizens and visitors.”
The state grant will be supplemented by a local kitty of 911 surcharge fees, a portion of which remain at the county level rather than going into the state pool.
The Haywood dispatch center fielded 135,000 calls last year. Of those, 73,000 were 911 calls — about 200 a day on average. Three to four dispatchers are on the clock at all times. To fill all the shifts, it takes 14 full-time and eight part-time employees.
Dispatchers are the lifeline — literally — between the general public and legions of law enforcement, fire fighters and rescue workers throughout the county. Ultimately, emergency response in the field hinges on the accuracy and swiftness of the dispatchers.
“When someone calls 911, lives are at stake. Can we get the proper people, equipment and tools to them in the quickest manner possible? That is always the driving force,” said Sgt. Heidi Warren with the Haywood Sheriff’s Office.
In a best-case scenario, two dispatchers work a 911 call in tandem. One stays on the line with the caller to gather live, real time info about what’s happening at the scene, talking the caller through emergency instructions if necessary.
Meanwhile, a second dispatcher is on the radio with responders — be it police, fire or medics — feeding them the information being captured from the caller by the first dispatcher.
What the project entails
Technology and equipment are the most expensive parts of the new 911 center. It will account for $2 million of the $3 million project.
The technology that runs the 911 switchboard and radio systems is critical, but the equipment is so old it’s hard to find replacement parts or technicians able to service it.
“Our current equipment is outdated or near its end of life,” said Chanda Morgan, the supervisor over dispatch. Morgan feared it was just a matter of time until something really broke.
Morgan has been call the “engine and driving force” behind the new 911 center, and even the “unsung hero.” Morgan pursued the grant, and if not for that, who knows how long dispatch would have remained in a cramped basement across town with outdated equipment.
The 911 center is so crowded that when back-up dispatchers are called in during emergencies to handle high call volume, they have to sit in rolling chairs in the hallway and use laptops with headsets, Morgan said.
However, moving in to the sheriff’s office is about more than elbow room, Morgan said. Sheriff Christopher agreed.
“In the event of a county-wide emergency, having 911 and dispatch services consolidated and located within the Sheriff’s Office means our command staff is only feet away from being able to make informed, critical decisions and direct appropriate resources immediately,” Christopher said.
Under one roof
The new central dispatch center will realize a vision for streamlined communication that’s been in the works for more than a year.
The county used to have two dispatch units: one under the sheriff’s command and another under emergency services. They worked in different buildings and had to bounce calls back and forth, depending on what kind of help the caller needed.
A year ago, the two teams moved in together.
“We have already seen our response times decrease. There is no lapse in communications. We are simultaneously dispatching law enforcement, EMS or fire,” Haynes said.
The dispatchers can also share call load, since they are working joint switchboards from the same room.
“Now we are all cross-trained so we can answer any of the calls and work together,” Morgan said.
The two dispatch units were also brought under the single management of the sheriff.
“It has made a huge difference,” Haynes said.
Haynes said it is part and parcel to the interagency cooperation Christopher stands for, where every law enforcement agency and emergency response unit functions cohesively with each other and views elected leaders as part of the team.
“It was one of the sheriff’s main visions when he first came into office was to reestablish those relationships,” Haynes said.
Emergency Services Director Greg Shuping said he supports the move to transfer command of the dispatch unit he currently directs to the sheriff.
“The sheriff said, ‘Look let’s put everybody together again like it should be,” Shuping recalled.
It’s better than a 911 caller hearing from a dispatcher, “We know you need help but you are going to have to wait while we transfer you to someone else,’” Shuping said.
When the new 911 center comes online, the old one won’t be decommissioned. It will be kept in working order — as much as possible given the aging equipment — as a back-up, something that doesn’t exist now.
“In the emergency services world, you want to have redundancy,” Haynes said.
Same song, different verse: the plight of disparate radio frequencies
It’s a crazy problem to have in the 21st century communication age, but apparently not that uncommon. Two officers on the scene of a major emergency can see each other in the distance. But they’re too far away to shout. There’s no cell phone reception. And their radios can’t operate on the same channel.
“This creates a lot of problems when agencies need to communicate with each other,” said Jim Pressley, Haywood’s EMS director.
Pressley didn’t have to flip very far back in the accident log to find a shining example: a wreck on I-40 inside a tunnel in the steep, remote Pigeon River Gorge. A passel of agencies converged on the scene — sheriff’s deputies, Highway Patrol, volunteer fire departments, Haywood EMS and even the state highway department’s emergency motorist patrol unit.
“We couldn’t communicate simultaneously on a single channel,” Pressley said.
Instead, they had to use county dispatcher as a translator. Dispatch would rapidly collect radio transmissions coming over the different channels and send them back out to the rest of the units in the field. It worked, but it’s cumbersome to send communications through a third party.
“The issue we run into in Haywood County is geographically, we can’t just pick up the cell phone,” Pressley said.
A $300,000 state grant has been applied for, and if received, would make a huge stride in bringing Haywood County’s fire fighters, rescue workers, medics and law enforcement together on the same radio system.
The new radio system would tap into a new series of telecommunication towers erected across North Carolina by the Highway Patrol. Known as VIPER — or Voice Interoperability Plan for Emergency Responders — the towers have provided a backbone for a single radio system for all emergency responders throughout the state.
The challenge for local jurisdictions is to convert to VIPER, which means buying the VIPER-compatible radio units for ambulances, patrol cars, fire trucks and handheld sets.
The VIPER grant would make that transition possible.
“There’s quite a few counties that have chosen to move their communications over to VIPER. Others are transitioning but it is just expensive,” said Haywood Emergency Services Director Greg Shuping. “We are hoping to offset what this costs.”
— By Becky Johnson