New 911 dispatch center’s open, but city has yet to move in ***UPDATED***

A new $2.1 million center built to bring Asheville and Buncombe County emergency dispatchers together under one roof has opened, but some seats are empty because city and county government officials are at loggerheads over the definition of “console.” The stalled move-in means a delay in a hoped-for reduction in emergency-response times.

The two governments signed an agreement six years ago in which the county agreed to pay to build and furnish the 911 call center. That agreement also requires the city and county to sign an operating agreement before Asheville Police Department’s dispatchers move in.

But the definition of the word “console” has stalled the move. County officials want to be sure the word is defined narrowly as the piece of furniture at which a dispatcher sits, and not broadly to include the city’s radio infrastructure. The county doesn’t want to be saddled with any costs regarding the city’s radio infrastructure. The difference between the two definitions is “in the millions,” says County Manager Wanda Green.

The county’s emergency workers use radios on the VHF radio spectrum, while the city’s police department uses radios on the 800 megahertz part of the spectrum.

In an e-mail to Green on Feb. 20, City Manager Gary Jackson said the city was ready to move forward with an agreement and put the issue on Asheville City Council’s Feb. 24 agenda, but added that it didn’t delve “into the original 2003 agreement terms associated with workstations and equipment.” Jackson forwarded an e-mail from city IT Services Director Jonathan Feldman, who wrote:

“Console is defined as ‘the workstation and equipment used by a telecommunicator for the receiving and dispatching of calls for service.’  911 equipment is defined as ‘the infrastructure and equipment necessary for a public safety agency to receive calls for service.’  Hence, radio equipment & infrastructure that is directly necessary to be used by a telecommunicator to dispatch a call for service would be covered. I think that nobody on the team would expect a reasonable person to extend this to the entirety of radio infrastructure (i.e. the expectation of radio tower maintenance and replacement, or foundational radio system infrastructure).”

City Council on Tuesday put off a discussion about the issue.

For years, dispatchers for the Asheville Police Department, the Asheville Fire Department, the county Emergency Management Services (ambulances) and the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office were located at separate locations. But dispatchers for the Sheriff’s Office, EMS and the Fire Department moved in together on July 20, 2008, in the new center in Erwin Hills.

One goal was paramount in the move — cutting down emergency-response times. When a resident calls 911, EMS dispatchers answer and ask if the caller needs fire, medical or police, then hand off the call to another dispatcher in one of those areas. Having all dispatchers under one roof simply makes the flow of calls smoother, says Deputy Fire Marshall Mack Salley.

“When the Sheriff’s Office moved in with us in July, their dispatch time was reduced, and a lot of it is not because of phone transfers, but because they’re in the same room. The sheriff’s dispatcher can just turn and say, ‘Send me an ambulance,’” Salley says. “It makes the whole flow of emergency services go better.”

For now, though, there are six empty seats ready and waiting for police department dispatchers, says Salley. “All they have to do is pack their bags and move in.”

Click here to go to Xpress Files and read: the version of the agreement that the county wants signed; the city’s staff report to City Council; an e-mail exchange between Green and Jackson regarding the center; and a briefing document Green sent to Buncombe County commissioners.

— Jason Sandford



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