September Tour History
Twenty-three people attended the tour of 911 facilities on August 25. The turnout represented a wide range of ages and interests, including more college students and potential new club members than usual.
The 911 Center moved last year from cramped basement quarters in the Rousseau (former City-County) Building to a completely renovated and purpose-designed floor in the Building's tower. The design of both physical spaces and electronics allows for ongoing updates, as well as panoramic views across much of Allen County.
The Center's workstations are largely modular and can be readily moved, reconfigured, or consolidated into less space. Most of the Center is on a false floor for flexible routing of cables or pipes (if needed), and access to conditioned air to cool computers (protected in cabinets within the workstations). About the only complaint during the tour was the false floor carries too much sound around the facility and will need some sound barriers installed.
Each workstation must serve rotating shifts of staff all day, every day, and adapt to changing work demands and stresses. The workstations are semi-circular and 10 to 15 feet across. The desktop is adjustable to allow any height of sitting or standing, and divided into front and rear semi-circles which raise or lower independently of each other. Metal frames on the rear semi-circle move various groups of flat-screen monitors forwards or backwards. Stations had as many as 10 monitors and could accommodate many more.
Staff often communicate by voice across the room, partly to confirm they are coordinating actions on the monitors. Each workstation has various lights which automatically signal other coworkers when the staffer is on the phone, on a radio, or otherwise unavailable. A fourth light and audible alarm sounds when the workstation receives an emergency transferred from another station, to assure the receiving worker notices the actions on his/her monitor(s) and to notify everyone in the room of the transfer.
In anticipation of very long and tense working hours during extended emergencies, there was discussion of eventually getting a special mini-treadmill and/or a specially designed exercise bike which could substitute for a chair at workstations. Given the circumstances, it made sense. Also, our culture is increasingly aware of severe health problems associated with chronically sitting.
The working environment was somewhat tense but much less than expected. The difference appeared to be proper training, capable staff, appropriate supervision, sufficient equipment, and good morale.
It was easy to see why communications equipment and software has become obsolete every few years in the public safety sector. Beyond the need for ever better encryption so "bad guys" cannot eavesdrop, there have been ever increasing needs to know exactly where a police officer or fire responder is, in addition to where their vehicle is and what it, and their situations are at any given moment. Meanwhile, about 70% of incoming 911 calls are erroneous, often accidental calls from cell phones bouncing around a pocket or purse, the owner unaware that 911 is actively trying to figure them out. BUT, any of those might be serious distress calls, and most cell phones give lousy indications of their location. Now, an ability to text 911 is being introduced, which our tour guide (a supervisor) demonstrated muddles location and communication even further.
Landline phones are dying out of use, but vastly superior for speed of response, clarity, and determining location. They also outlast other systems during power failures and many other circumstances. Some pay phones still exist and 911 knows each location because they are usually prank calls.
About a third of the 911 Center's floor space is vacant for expansion because the role of 911 facilities nationwide has rapidly and steadily expanded in response to natural disasters, major acts of violence, public expectations, and legal demands.
About a quarter of the floor is one of several emergency coordination (or "command") centers in Allen County. Command centers are basically a long conference table with twelve seats, each equipped with a computer and multi-function phones, with open space along the walls and windows for support staff and their gear.
Another quarter of the space provides a very basic locker room, a sparse break/lunch room, and a few offices. It was adequate for everyday needs but clearly low budget and not intended for extended emergencies.
The limitations of our response systems also become apparent for mass emergencies. There are some efforts underway to encourage individual and neighborhood preparedness. Current goals are to have every household prepared to shelter in place for three days without water, power, or heat. It is also advisable to keep fuel tanks at least half full.
Particularly distressing and often hopelessly overwhelming is the number of citizens who must have electrical power for medical reasons, but are completely unprepared for failures.
This new 911 Center has consumed about $41 million to date and its costs continue to mount for keeping up with rapidly changing technology, Federal mandates, and legal demands. This is understandably controversial. Our tour seemed to instill a widespread understanding of why those costs are so high and yet still worth supporting.