James Thalman

James Thalman

ACE Achievers

By James Thalman

Depending on how you look at it, the big “Failure is not an option” sign in the entryway of the Johnston County E-911 Communications Center in Smithfield, N.C., is a nice mission statement, a working slogan, or possibly a warning.

Take it how you will, but to the staff and supervisors of one of the world’s best call centers, the phrase is a fact of life. It’s that simple.

Talk to Director Jason Barbour for more than two minutes, and he’ll tell you so three or four times. He’s not bragging; he’s just proud to point it out and figures that it’s the best way to sum up things when asked how his center works.

“It’s not a goal, it’s how we do things,” Barbour said. “It all comes down to that.”

“All” to Barbour includes the center’s average 160,000 fire, law enforcement, and EMS calls per month with an average of more than 15,000 of these calls dispatched from across the center's 600-square-mile service region.

“We’ll provide the help and the public health and safety that people have come to expect, not find excuses why we didn’t,” he said.

Not only has the agency’s no-room-for-failure aided in its achievement of triple Accredited Center of Excellence (ACE) status for its use of fire, police, and medical protocols—only the third to achieve tri-ACE in the United States and the fourth in the world—but it is also the reason it obtained a $2.3 million grant in November for equipment upgrades from its umbrella agency, the North Carolina 9-1-1 Board.

The grant is part of an effort by the General Assembly of North Carolina to upgrade the copper wireline equipment at the call center. The improvements are over and above the agency’s continuing preparations to meet the burgeoning personal cell phone calls and other wireless telephone customers. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is in the rule-making phase of a Congressional mandate to emergency responders to make their facilities cell-phone capable.

Cell phone-based calls to the Johnston County E-911 center are already well over 80% of all calls the center currently receives, Barbour said, noting in September 2009, only half of the emergency calls were from cell phones.

On July 27, 2007, the General Assembly of North Carolina created the 9-1-1 Board and gave it responsibility for both wireline and wireless 9-1-1 in the state. It included a single, statewide service charge per connection for any type of voice communication service provider effective Jan. 1, 2008. The service charge was initially set at 70 cents and is now 60 cents.

Barbour agrees that obtaining a grant for any service in any state for any expansion is unusual in an economic environment that is forcing most every state agency in most every state to stretch shrinking tax revenues by doing more with less.

“It’s been that way since 2008,” Barbour said.

And he should know. Barbour has both deep-local experience as the current E-911 director and the big-picture perspective as the former president of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), the only professional organization solely focused on 9-1-1 policy, technology, operations, and education issues. The association is the tip of a current global effort to facilitate and create the Next Generation 9-1-1 system as well as establish industry-leading standards, training, and certification.

Barbour has told audiences of national television news programs as well as testified before Congress that as consumers increasingly use converged voice, video, and data services to communicate with one another centers must try to stay ahead, not just hope to keep up. He said as emergency response entities work to deploy wireless broadband networks, it is increasingly important that 9-1-1 centers be equipped with the next generation technology required to seamlessly receive and distribute many forms of information.

“North Carolina lawmakers as well as county officials have been very committed to providing the best emergency services for public safety and health, and the grant is a clear indication, especially in these difficult economic times, that they mean it,” Barbour said.

The county will install the new technology in the main 9-1-1 center in Smithfield and in the backup center in Clayton. The change is expected to occur in February or March and the plan is to have the system fully adapted by summer.

“The only holdback is how fast cell phone carriers will adapt,” he said, adding that only two call centers in the country are broadband-operational at the moment.

Barbour said the current technology in the center is at least 13 years old and outdated. Barbour said manufacturers no longer make the equipment, so there's no way to make repairs if it breaks.

"It's like having a car (that) no one can work on," he said. "Eventually, you aren't going to be able to drive anymore. Typically, 9-1-1 technology should be replaced every 10 to 15 years.”

Johnston County no doubt has an advanced 9-1-1 system for a county of its size (165,000 population), Barbour said. All agencies, including police, fire departments, EMS, the fire marshal's office, and Red Cross, are on the same digitized system.

The area might appear to be generally rural in geography, but two major corporations have moved in and Johnston County is part of The Research Triangle—the region named after three research universities: North Carolina State, Duke, and University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill.

In addition to answering emergency calls from the universities, the center also handles requests for Emergency Management, Fire Marshal, Red Cross, and medical helicopters from Duke, UNC, East Wake, and East Carolina. Personnel also assist the sheriff's department with dispatch during periods of heavy radio or phone traffic. The 9-1-1 communications center is fully operational 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Seven console positions are staffed with the 8th, 9th, and 10th positions operated by sheriff's personnel.

In terms of call volume statistics complied for 2011, Johnston County E-911 Communications took 126,000 calls involving the 14 law enforcement agencies in its coverage area, 9,844 calls involving 24 fire departments and ancillary services (such as the forestry services), and 15,610 calls requiring EMS response. The average number of responses by the county generally exceeds 1,200 calls a month.

Staff personnel are required to be trained and certified through the Division of Criminal Information (DCI) and the state Bureau of Investigation. This certification allows access to the DCI files for information regarding histories, stolen guns, articles, boats, and motor vehicles. Other required certifications are Emergency Medical Dispatch (EMD), Emergency Fire Dispatch (EFD), and Emergency Police Dispatch (EPD).

Johnston County is the crossroads for North Carolina’s north, south, east, and west main roadways. It lies midway between New York and Florida on I-95. Atlantic Coast Beaches are two hours east and the Blue Ridge Mountains are four hours away.