Backup dispatch center undergoes construction in face of fire

Monday, November 7, 2011 | 6:46 p.m. CST; updated 7:49 p.m. CST, Monday, November 7, 2011

COLUMBIA — A small fire at the 911 Operations Center on Sunday night makes the case for a backup dispatch center that's under construction now, Public Safety Joint Communications Director Zim Schwartze said Monday.

The backup dispatch center, which is being built on land belonging to the Boone County Sheriff's Department, will serve as an emergency alternate location to the Office of Emergency Management. The land is near the jail northeast of Columbia.

Capt. Chad Martin of the Boone County Sheriff's Department said the solution "mimics a dispatch center off-site, and at great enough distance away from downtown, hopes are, that it would not affect us."

The Office of Emergency Management's principal dispatch location, the 911 Operations Center, is on the second story of the Columbia Police Department headquarters downtown. Should employees need to evacuate the building for any reason, the backup dispatch center would allow emergency telecommunicators to seamlessly continue emergency services without decreasing the number of calls they can handle.

The timing of the construction could not be better.

On Sunday, the 911 Operations Center was evacuated due to smoke and an apparent electrical fire.

All six employees working in the center were uninjured, and some were relocated to the Emergency Operations Center, Schwartze said. The relocated employees continued dispatch services but had limited phone capabilities.

The operations center was fully functioning again with the hour, and it sustained no lasting damage.

Schwartze said the incident occurred while staff members were replacing equipment in the 911 center and smoke began coming from a power strip. Schwartze stated that experts have been contacted to examine the equipment, but it appears that the incident was caused by wiring that was improperly installed in the past.

Joint Communications urged Columbia residents not to use the dispatch services during the evacuation unless there was a life-threatening emergency. The center contacted local media and used Nixle to spread the word. Nixle is akin to a government version of Twitter.

Schwartze congratulated residents, emergency telecommunicators and the Columbia Fire and Police departments for their handling of the situation and the operation center's short recovery time.

But she also said the episode proves the need for a backup dispatch center.

"We have a lot of computer equipment and phones in our fully operating center that we don't have at the Emergency Operations Center. We have enough to get us by for a short period of time, and it worked well for this incident, but it wouldn't for anything longer."

The proposed center, an 12-by-21-foot insulated wood building, will be powered commercially with the assistance of a mobile generator. The building will house radio equipment, tone encoders, computers and analog phones to receive and process 911 calls.

According to a Sept. 9 report from Schwartze to the Columbia City Council, the backup dispatch center also will be able to activate warning sirens and use other public notification systems such as Nixle using Internet access.

Parking spaces and access to the neighboring sheriff's department building will be available in case of long-term use. 

Planning and preparation for the project has been ongoing with Boone County commissioners since early 2011; the council approved an agreement authorizing the center in October.  Schwartze said in her report that the two-year start-up costs for the backup center would be $70,491. Annual fiber-optic and phone service will cost an estimated $3,615 per year.

Now, the building is nearly done. The site has been developed, the structure has been raised and some equipment has been purchased. Schwartze said she hopes it will be operational by the end of the year. 

"It's very much needed, and that's why we've been working on it for months," Schwartze said.

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