02/21/12 — State 911 center rule changes prompt local project slowdown

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State 911 center rule changes prompt local project slowdown

By Steve Herring
Published in News on February 21, 2012 1:46 PM

Wayne County's plans for a $2 million 911 call center have been put on hold temporarily pending revised state and national standards for such facilities.

The delay will allow the county time to consider adding a 311 information element to the project in hopes of reducing the volume of non-emergency administrative calls now tying up 911 dispatchers.

The county is averaging between 300,000 to 400,000 911 calls per year -- roughly the equivalent of every single person in the county calling 911 at least three times.

"We had over 300,000 calls, and you were talking less than a third of that eight years ago," Wayne County Manager Lee Smith said. "By two-thirds, you have increased in 10 years. What does that mean?

"It means two things. We are growing by population and it also means we are becoming more urbanized. People are asking for more services. Service demand is greater, and even though I might not want to spend the dollars, if folks are dialing 911, we have got to answer the call."

The county needs to be able to determine if the call is an emergency or not, Smith said. If the phone rings, the county can't say it is or isn't -- it has to answer the phone, he said.

Hence the conversations concerning a 311 feature.

The idea is in its preliminary stages and Smith said he is unsure exactly how it would work. One idea is to have an eighth station in the 911 center that would be strictly administrative.

"So if you call and you have an administrative call, you could be transferred to that position if you call anything other than 311 or a seven-digit number," Smith said. "But emergencies are handled by the telecommunicators, and we don't want to clog up the system because a person having an emergency is much more important that just general information. We have an obligation to answer the phone within a certain number of seconds."

Those operators would not have to be certified telecommunicators, but rather data operators.

"They would basically be looking at a database," Smith said. "If you say, 'I live in Goldsboro and I am calling about the water system.' Well, they would give you a number or they would give you the right contact or general information."

The county is checking with other counties to see how such an operation might work.

"I think it has at least merit to take a look at it to maximize use of our people, use of our time," he said. "So we have stepped back a little bit and I think that is the proper approach."

Wayne County commissioners had originally looked at possibly awarding bids for the call center in March, with construction starting in December. The board last September authorized Smith to begin gathering cost estimates only.

The county possibly would use the design-build approach in which a team would provide the design and construction for the approximately 9,000-square-foot-building that will be built on county-owned property.

The possibility of delaying the project was first broached last week during commissioners' two-day planning retreat.

"(Office of Emergency Services director) Joe Gurley is working closely with the state 911 board looking at what the (new 911 center) standards are," Smith said. "We do have some concerns that we need to kind of slow down and be cautious about standards of construction because as Joe said, there are things that may be required of construction types for 911 centers."

Some of those standards now require bulletproof glass and windows that have to be a certain height off the floor -- requirements that were not in place when the county was doing its initial planning.

The county is looking to see what state monies, including revenues from the 911 surcharge, are available to build the project without having to use local tax dollars, Smith said.

"We are looking at that and trying to maximize the dollars we can get in building some sort of center that is secure," he said.

The county might be able to combine monies for the project, he said. As such, the county needs to look at how much space is really needed, how much money is available to build such a building and how it needs to be built -- how large and what needs to be in it.

The project could also include additional fiber optic cable to add redundancy to the system. Also, for the first time, the county would have a facility to store backups of all its vital data.

The exiting 911 center in the Jeffreys Building would be converted into a live backup 911 center, something the county currently does not have.