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Audrey Fraizer

Audrey Fraizer

ACE Achievers

By Audrey Fraizer

The list of Durham Emergency Communications Center (ECC), North Carolina, accolades reads like a résumé submitted for a U.S. 9-1-1 Operation (or Agency) of the Year award.

Durham ECC is an International Academies of Emergency Dispatch® (IAED™) Accredited Center of Excellence (ACE); Project 33 certified by the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International, Inc.; and accredited by the Commission for Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA)/Public Safety Communications.

It is also the first 9-1-1 center in North Carolina, as well as one of the first 9-1-1 centers in the U.S., to enable text-to-9-1-1 technology, and the first major municipality to enable the direct 9-1-1 texting feature for its residents through four major wireless carriers.

But it’s not just about the parts: accreditation, certification, and texting capability combined with other advancing technology. They work in sync.

“We look at the process,” said Durham ECC QA Manager Charles Brown. “We look at how everything fits together for the benefit of our callers.”

The 68 employees dedicated to the comm. center answer emergency police, fire, and EMS as well as non-emergency calls for an area covering 296 square miles and 250,000 residents. They work on the third floor of Durham City Police headquarters, an 84,566-square-foot building constructed in 1959 for a life insurance company.

Along with the law enforcement operation, the comm. center occupies quarters that are too small and inadequate for the growing service. Staff members are looking forward to moving to a new building in mid-2018.

Director James Soukup said the proposed law enforcement complex puts the ECC on a dedicated floor in a building attached by a corridor to police headquarters. Proximity maintains their close ties, Soukup said, and complements mutual goals.

Soukup tends to be all about goals.

He started in the profession 33 years ago when the Citrus County (Fla.) Emergency Command Center engaged his radio engineering skills to improve communications. He stayed for the next 22 years building a portfolio that includes replacing the 10-digit emergency number with a 9-1-1 system and combining two police departments, a hospital-based EMS, and 13 volunteer fire departments into the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office Emergency Operations Center (EOC). It was Florida’s first 9-1-1 consolidated center.

Soukup resigned as Citrus County’s EOC director in 2004 for a move to Durham, three years after the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office EOC was accredited as an ACE; the EOC has been re-accredited four times.

Soukup’s goals—never his ambition—changed slightly to fit the times and demands of North Carolina’s fourth-largest city (in terms of population). Achieving ACE was a given. The comm. center was already using the Medical Priority Dispatch System (MPDS) and had started the Twenty Points of Accreditation.

“I made sure we finished,” Soukup said.

Durham ECC was first accredited in 2005, and has been re-accredited three times consecutively. A fire ACE and a police ACE are close to being accomplished.

Soukup’s drive to achieve three accreditations—medical ACE, Project 33, and CALEA—and a tri-ACE, however, were not to enhance the center’s already impressive résumé or to claim external recognition outside those they serve.

“Everything we do makes our job more efficient and better for the public,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

On average, Durham ECC processes 949 calls each day, a number that can easily double like it did when a winter storm hit the city on Feb. 12, 2014, and a state of emergency was declared. But it’s not only the calls from residents they answer on a continuing basis. Durham is a happening city; it’s a destination for people from all over North Carolina and outside the state.

An estimated 9 million tourists descend upon Durham each year to visit the historic sites, parks and recreation areas, academic institutions, performance and music venues, downtown shopping district, and its 43 museums and art galleries.

The city also holds running top ratings in “smartest city” profiles owing to Duke and North Carolina Central universities, innovative technology (home to the Ctrl-Alt-Delete computer command), the number of residents with bachelor and master’s degrees, and total volume of book sales. The majority of the Research Triangle Park (RTP) makes its home in Durham County.

Adding to the city’s universal appeal is the “cooperative management style” practiced, Brown said.

“There’s not a lot of the ‘us and them’ mentality,” he said. “We have a high level of cooperation that helps things get done.”

The working-things-out-together philosophy extends to law enforcement, fire, EMS (including EMS Medical Director Eric Ossman, M.D.), and communications. Representatives meet bimonthly to discuss system issues and relay progress reports that relate to their joint public safety responsibility. Brown presents performance measurement data.

“We’re not meeting to have meetings,” Brown said. “We’re constantly looking for ways to connect everything we do.”

Durham ECC is also part of the “Safe & Secure Community” strategic plan developed by the city. Their primary objective—answering 9-1-1 calls within standards to reduce the occurrence and severity of crime—is scored in the plan as “at or above target.”

Brown connected with emergency services right out of high school, owing to the severity of a crime he witnessed while a bystander in a parking lot.

“There was a stabbing,” he said. “When fire-rescue responded, and I watched what they did to help the victim, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Brown, a paramedic, EMD instructor, and an IAED National Q, has “been riding the ambulance” ever since. It was during his earliest days working for Tampa, Fla.-based SAS Ambulance in Durham that he learned about the MPDS from his manager Wayne Clark.

“He taught me about the MPDS years before it was widely adopted in North Carolina,” Brown said. “He made me a believer in its practice.”

In 1989, Brown was hired to work in the Durham comm. center.

It was the toughest job he ever pursued.

“Expectations here have always been high, and it takes the efforts of a whole bunch of people who understand the difference they can make,” he said.

Brown is a dedicated Q, along with fellow Qs Jayme Tidwell and Leigh Watson, and for consistency, they operate on a rotational basis. Each Q eventually gets a turn to review each calltaker.

ACE wasn’t a hard sell, Brown said.

Soukup pushed the community recognition that ACE would provide and called in IAED National Q Director Chris Bradford.

“Chris gave us a super how-to and pointed out where we needed to focus,” he said. “His motivational talk was amazing. He put everything into perspective. This was not just a job. This was about saving lives.”

Brown took the lead, looking to Bradford for insight and guidance. Bradford emphasized a personal approach, reinforcing the belief that the system was only as good as the people behind it, and that ACE was the standard that should drive them.

“The intensity in the field is the same as it is in the comm. center,” Bradford said. “Someone’s life is in your hands, so you better be at the highest standard.”

Within the year, Durham ECC was an ACE.

Soukup said accreditation conveys the importance in the chain of response.

“9-1-1 personnel are often the forgotten part of the whole process,” he said. “Accreditation tells the community, ‘We are doing great work here.’”

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