By Lee Weyhrich
The largest consolidated 911 call center in the state should be operational by August, Jefferson County 9-1-1 Deputy Director Michael Lee said at Thursday’s Pinson City Council meeting.
The $4.5 million center, located in the old Center Point Satellite Courthouse, will serve more than 190,000 people. The current 911 center is housed in the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.
Jefferson County 911 has already made extensive renovations to the building, at no cost to the county. Funding comes from a 911-specific line item in every phone bill. These fees, by law, must be used to fund 911 emergency services. Jefferson County 911 was able to save $5 million, collected from 40 different telephone companies over the course of several years. Renovations and equipment will cost $4.5 million. The other $500,000 will be used for basic startup costs.
“If you walked in there the last few years to vote, or whatever, you wouldn’t recognize it today,” Lee said.
The new main dispatch office will be housed in the old auditorium, with a conference room on the upper level. The old kitchen has been gutted and will be converted into restroom facilities. The dispatchers will also be provided with equipment, including new work stations that will allow dispatchers to be more mobile.
“The current furniture we use lacks the flexibility,” Lee, a 29-year veteran of dispatch, said. “Dispatching is a hard job. The new work tops are adjustable. They come up or down so that the dispatcher can choose to stand or sit. Birmingham updated their workstations to this system a few years ago and it has proven very successful.”
Desks will not be the only improvement. A new computer system will also allow dispatchers to pinpoint from where a call is being placed
. A caller’s location will appear on a map. This will allow dispatch to prioritize calls, since calls placed from the same geographic location would likely involve the same incident, while those outside that radius would be unique. Lee estimated that 70 percent of all 911 calls are made by cell phones.
The call center will serve 18 cities as well as unincorporated Jefferson County. Forty dispatchers from the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, Center Point Fire District and one local ambulance company will move together into the new facility when it’s opened. At one point, Jefferson County 911 looked into building a new center in Homewood, but the Center Point location proved to be more feasible when the state of Alabama abandoned it for licensing use.
“I think they acted very wisely by using the Center Point courthouse,” Jefferson County Commissioner Joe Knight said.
One fear in locating the center in Center Point has been the area’s seemingly magnetic attraction for storms. For this reason, Jefferson County 911 has invested in a 350-kilowatt generator to account for power outages. In the event a storm hits the office itself, the dispatch office in the sheriff’s office will be kept in working condition.
“We are going to keep, and update, the equipment we have at the sheriff’s department now,” Lee said.
For more information, visit www.jeffcoal911.org.