New $16M 911 center under construction

Officials said having all police, fire and ambulance dispatchers working from the same facility will improve response times


By Stephanie Taylor
The Tuscaloosa News

TUSCALOOSA COUNTY, Ala. — Construction is underway on a $16 million facility that will house the 911 operations of all county agencies and the Emergency Management Agency.

Work on the new Tuscaloosa County Emergency Operations and Communications Center began in August and should be finished by December, with staff occupying the building next spring.

Government leaders have discussed the idea of having all police, fire and ambulance dispatchers working from the same facility for more than 20 years. The officials say that everyone in the same room will improve response times and service to the community.

"One thing it will solve is all of the phone problems we have now," said Tuscaloosa E-911 director Rod Coleman. "This method of operation will solve the problem of callers currently being transferred multiple times between agencies and having to repeat their call for help due to the limits of current phone technology."

More than 90 percent of 911 calls are made from cell phones, Coleman said. It's a daily occurrence for someone to call from a location near the Tuscaloosa and Northport borders, and have their call go to the wrong agency due to cell tower locations. Coleman said he once made a test call while near the Northport Police Department that connected to a tower in downtown Tuscaloosa. The terrain prevented the cell signal from reaching a tower next to the police department that would have connected him to the correct agency, he said.

Tuscaloosa and Northport police and fire departments, Tuscaloosa County Sheriff's Office and Northstar Ambulance will all have space in the 27,344 square foot building on Rose Boulevard. Right now, each agency operates out of its respective office, with calls being answered at three locations. The Tuscaloosa County Emergency Management Agency will lease part of the new space, which will replace their offices and the Emergency Operations Center that were destroyed in the April 27, 2011 tornado.

This building is being built to withstand any potential threat. The only window is on the front door, which will be secure and not open to the public. There are concrete walls and a concrete roof, and berming around the building to protect against high winds.

"It was designed to withstand anything," Coleman said.

Each agency will keep their autonomy -- they're "co-locating" rather than consolidating.

While the idea has been discussed for two decades, serious discussions didn't happen until 2010 when Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox, Probate Judge Hardy McCollum and former Northport Mayor Bobby Herndon formed a 911 task force to examine current call-taking and dispatching procedures of all agencies in the county.

The study recommended the co-location method, and is based on a method used in Madison and Mobile counties.

Around 25-30 new call-takers and administrative staff will be hired and be employees of Tuscaloosa County 911. They will answer all 911 calls and gather information that dispatchers will need to provide to first responders.

The computer system will allow the dispatchers to see information as it's being entered by the call-takers. A CAD system and mapping software will automatically determine which agency is the one to respond as the call comes in.

"This method of operation will greatly aid the inter-operable communication and situational awareness of all agencies in the facility by having the ability to speak face to face with other telecommunicators in the same room," Coleman said. "This will be greatly beneficial to not only day-to-day operations, but especially major events and multi-jurisdictional incidents."

Tuscaloosa County 911 used money collected from the state's 911 surcharge for phone customers to pay for the land and building. It's being built on 13.1 acres purchased from Black Warrior Solid Waste Disposal Authority for $102,000.

The facility will will be located at 7400 Richard M. Pierce Parkway, named after the first 911 and EMA director for Tuscaloosa County. It's about one mile north of U.S. Highway 82 off Rose Boulevard.

Copyright 2017 The Tuscaloosa News

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