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New 911 center critical to upgrading Washington County emergency communications

July 19, 2008|By JOSHUA BOWMAN

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- It is a building under construction, full of dust, ladders and boxes of unpacked equipment.

Electrical wires are draped over wooden beams, and empty soda bottles and sandwich wrappers litter the floor.

At this time next year, however, the rear half of Washington County's Environmental Management office on Elliott Parkway will be the county's hub of 911 communications.

"This is what we call the master-prime site," said Washington County Public Works Director Joseph Kroboth III, who is overseeing the construction. "It's where everything will be controlled."

The new 911 center is a small, but crucial part of the county's $27 million effort to consolidate its radio communications system.

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When the consolidation is finished, police, firefighters and rescue personnel from different agencies will be able to talk to each other over their radios, which cannot be done now.

The digital communications system will use 10 towers, most of which will be around 190 feet tall.

An existing 300-foot state tower near the Md. 65 and Interstate 70 interchange will be used for the system.

The main tower at Elliott Parkway, which has been built, stands at 330 feet.

All of the towers will house not only antennas for the county's system, but antennas for a recently announced statewide communications system as well.

Because the state will be using the towers, it has paid about half of the $3.5 million needed to build the tower sites, Kroboth said.

The new dispatch center will cost about $2.2 million. The result will change the way public safety workers are called to emergencies.

Instead of dispatching by department, the 12 dispatchers at the center will be able to send the closest or most available units to an emergency, whether those units work for the city, county or state.

That freedom will quicken response times and potentially save lives, officials said.

"It's really a matter of efficiency," Washington County Sheriff Douglas W. Mullendore said.

Mullendore recalled a situation last month in which the sheriff's department responded to an automatic burglar alarm at a business at the same time that Maryland State Police were called by the business owner, who was chasing the suspect.

The two police agencies did not know what the other one was doing for about 20 minutes, Mullendore said.

"That will not happen when we have all the dispatchers together, taking calls and sending units out," Mullendore said.

Currently, there are four dispatch centers in Washington County -- one each for the sheriff's department, Hagerstown Police Department, Washington County Emergency Services and Maryland State Police.

Three of those centers will be combined at Elliott Parkway when construction there is finished later this year.

Maryland State Police will keep its dispatch center, though dispatchers at Elliott Parkway will be able to send state police to emergency calls as well.

The new center will be a significant improvement over current centers, Kroboth and others have said.

Washington County Emergency Services uses a basement room at 33 W. Washington St. that is about one-sixth the size of the new dispatch room.

"No windows, no real contact with the outside world," Kroboth said of the current center.

The new dispatch room is lined wall to wall with large, bulletproof windows and equipped with racks that will hold several large-screen monitors so dispatchers can track calls.

Lockers, a vending area and a large break room will make shifts more comfortable for dispatchers, who sometimes cannot leave work.

Adjacent to the dispatch room is a training room for dispatchers, and next to that is a room that will house a full dispatch workstation.

That workstation will be used for one-on-one training or can be used as a 13th dispatch desk if needed, Kroboth said.

Near the training room are offices for police supervisors and a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technician, who helps update address data for phones, which changes daily due to number changes and disconnected numbers, Kroboth said.

In the basement floor of the building, the county is building two training rooms that can be used by local volunteer fire and rescue associations.

The classrooms, which each can hold between 25 and 30 people, will give local fire and rescue groups a place to teach staff outside of firehouses, where alarms and calls can distract from training.

"This is really important, to get training out of the fire stations," Washington County Emergency Services Director Kevin L. Lewis said. "You won't have people jumping to go out on calls, radios blaring and all the other distractions that come with the stations."

Kroboth said the dispatch center should be finished by Thanksgiving.

After several months of testing, the new radio system should be up and running by next spring, Kroboth said.

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