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Cherokee’s new nerve center pushes the envelope inside and out

State-of-the-art defines just about everything the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians builds these days.

Gorgeous architectural lines, native mountain building materials, energy efficient green design — with price tags to match — are hallmarks of everything from a $140 million K-12 school to a $630 million expansion of its casino complex.

But even when it comes to tribal functions that are typically “back of the house” the tribe hasn’t wavered its high standards. A new emergency operations center — which houses dispatch for 911, emergency management and the IT department — may serve a utilitarian function, but the exterior suggests anything but. It is even an environmentally LEED-certified building.

It also serves as proof that the Eastern Band has big plans for its technological future.

“The chief issued an edict to say we had to be energy efficient, but also that we had to be smart about the way we plan our buildings,” said Brandon Stephens, who was the tribe’s construction manager at the time the project began.

Stephens said the most unique component of the building is that it brings the tribe’s emergency operations –– dispatch and emergency services –– under the same roof as the tribe’s IT department, which functions as the nerve center for 100 tribal programs and administers a 27.5-mile fiberoptic broadband network.

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The idea is that if a disaster struck the reservation, the building could become a command center for all types of emergency operations, allowing multiple agencies to have their finger on the pulse of the tribe’s communications and data network. The building has a backup diesel generator that can keep it running for seven days.

“We’ve never had a facility to be able to handle that type of situation,” said Bob Long, the tribe’s IT manager. “This gives us that.”

The building has an emergency office for Chief Michell Hicks and several meeting rooms that can double as command centers for cooperating agencies in the event of a disaster.

But the new emergency operations center also accomplishes a more mundane goal –– providing a home to a number of important programs that were dealing with less than ideal conditions.

The 20 employees in the tribe’s IT department, for instance, were scattered among three buildings at a time when their work is becoming more and more central to the tribe’s structure.

With the growth to tribal coffers from gambling revenue over the past decade, Cherokee’s government has grown from 50 to 200 tribally operated programs. The tribe now has 70 buildings connected to a 27.5-mile broadband fiber optic network with a 10-gigabyte capacity.

“We’d been trying to get the council’s ear to get us a better place to work, because we’re becoming so dependent on our data,” Long said.

The Tribal Council heard the appeals and authorized the expenditures for what Long called “a focal point of technology” on the Qualla Boundary.

Ray Stamper, director of emergency operations, said the new setup is a vast improvement for his team. Dispatch shares the second floor of the building, about 10,000 square feet, with Emergency Management Services.

“We were in a 10-by-12-foot room stacked in like sardines with three consoles,” Stamper said. “Now we have so much room, we’re having a hard time knowing how to act. It’s a high-tech environment, and everybody’s happy.”

The building achieved LEED gold certification for its energy efficient and worker-friendly environment. State of the art HVAC and wiring give the building good bones, but the building also features an automatic thermostat and lighting that conserves energy.

“A couple of the girls have gotten scared, ‘cause if they sit still too long, the lights will go out,” Stamper joked.

Stamper said the tribe’s dispatch department has had to ramp up its operations to deal with the high call volumes that are now part of day-to-day business.

“We have a million plus visitors from the [national] park alone, so we needed an upgrade, and we needed more dispatchers to deal with the heavy call volume,” Stamper said.

The building also houses classroom facilities that can be used for community training. Long said the facility lays the groundwork for the larger goal of bringing high-speed wireless to every home on the boundary.

Having played an integral role in bringing cable television to Cherokee in the 1980s, Long said the tribe’s newest digital revolution is still yet to reach about two-thirds of the homes on the reservation.

In the meantime, though, the tribe’s government is hardwiring for the future.

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