ONE OUT, THEN HOME RUN
February 25, 2014
By Scott Freitag
Before I launch into describing Salt Lake City, Utah’s, new Public Safety Building (PSB) and the benefits to 9-1-1 communications, I offer my apologies to others that have gone—or are going—through these same processes of facility development and consolidation. I certainly do not intend to downplay another center’s achievement by casting the light on Salt Lake City.
As Salt Lake City’s 9-1-1 Communications Bureau director, however, this is where I am most familiar, having been involved from the start. I would venture that our experience mirrors that of others, and that includes overcoming obstacles in funding, which is an important point I want to make.
Our first referendum to fund the new PSB was voted down. Post-election analysis determined voters saw the urgent need for a new public safety facility, but felt the proposal was both too costly and too vague.
Heeding the message, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker directed city staff to develop a more detailed proposal focused on immediate public safety needs, a more cost-effective facility, and potential partnerships with other governmental agencies. After nearly a year of public input, study, and analysis, the city presented a scaled-back proposal consisting of a new Public Safety Building and Emergency Operations Center with potential build sites. This time 65% of voters approved the measure.
The 172,000-square-foot PSB houses police, fire, and emergency operations. Because of equipment and testing, dispatchers anxiously bided their time and were the last department to move in. We went “live” at 2 a.m. on Oct. 1, 2013.
A week prior to our move from our former space, Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank invited me to help host a video tour of the building as part of the chief’s ongoing series to improve public understanding of the police department. Burbank works hard to keep the public informed about his department and, aside from that, we didn’t want cameras and lights interfering with emergency response.
The video gives a quick review of the technology governing the 9-1-1 system, with the emphasis on the 80 people—calltakers, dispatchers, and supervisors—who handle an estimated 550,000 calls a year.
Time on camera was short and dialog was to the point.
I opened with the “different as night and day” understatement, comparing the new center to former dispatch operations housed in an office building (circa 1957) never intended for emergency services. Ceilings leaked, elevators stopped between floors, plumbing clogged, and office space was so limited that closets large enough to accommodate a desk were assigned to an increasing number of first responders and administrators needed to run public services.
The former building was a hazard waiting to happen. The only existing evidence of its recent past is in storage, and Salt Lake City police were (at this writing) in talks with a neighboring city with a proposal to create a joint evidence and crime lab. However, storage areas at risk of flooding will require structural repair.
Our new building is designed for emergency services. Starting from the ground level, architectural precast concrete panels inset with a terra-cotta veneer were designed to withstand an earthquake of up to a magnitude of 7.5, the predicted scale of the “big one” estimated to hit anytime along the 240-mile Wasatch Fault. The building is designed to be fully operational immediately following such an earthquake. And it’s set back 50 feet from the street to ensure the structural integrity of the building in the event of a vehicular explosive device.
Police, fire, and medical dispatchers are answering 9-1-1 calls and sending response from the same room (before the move, public safety operations were separated between floors and an annex building.). Everyone is cross-trained and certified in the use of the police, fire, and medical protocols, and the Internet-based system gives us the ability to send and accept calls from the other communication centers in the valley.
During the July open house, many people noted the “light sabers” at each console. The color-coded lights (each having a stack of red, yellow, green, and blue lights) blink to indicate the status of a call, giving supervisors seated in an elevated portion of the center a full view of what’s going on.
Burbank was genuinely enthusiastic about the technology and aesthetics; however, he also made sure he gave the highest praise to the calltakers and dispatchers carrying the load. “The bells and whistles and technology are incredible,” Burbank said. “But, as we can all agree, the people who will work here are the most important. They are the ones who make the difference.”