Renovations For Center

Balto. Co. Emergency Operations To Get More Space, Tech Upgrade

July 11, 2009|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

Baltimore County's 20-year-old emergency operations center is slated for a $14 million modernization that will nearly double its space, upgrade its technology, enhance its connections with other jurisdictions and shorten response times.

On a recent tour of the center, federal legislators delivered a promise of $3 million to help pay for the renovations. The funds will help the center move from an analog to a digital system with upgraded phones, computers and radios that will expand communications capabilities in emergency situations across the county and into the surrounding region, officials said.

"The funds will buy technology and training and make this system ready for the 21st century," said Maryland senior Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski. "Lives are on the line, and this center needs help as quickly as it can get it. We also want to make sure we are protecting our first responders."

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger stressed the critical role of public safety, calling it the foundation of all government work.

"You have to start with 911," he said. "Federal dollars give emergency responders the resources they need."

The 911 Communications Center is staffed around the clock by 192 employees who handle nearly 1 million police, fire and emergency calls annually from a sprawling basement headquarters in the county courthouse.

Maryland's congressional delegation secured $1.5 million for the project this year and anticipate another $1.5 million in fiscal 2010. The county hopes to receive about $2.5 million from the Maryland Emergency Number Systems Board and will fund the remaining costs. The County Council approved $1.5 million is this fiscal year for design of the center. The remaining costs will likely be included in a referendum to the capital improvements program once construction begins, officials said.

Officials toured the training center and then followed guides through a long tunnel that connects classrooms to the hub of the activity - the fire and police dispatch center.

"911 is no longer simply a switchboard," said County Executive James T. Smith Jr. "In 2003 with Hurricane Isabel, we learned how essential it is to gathering facts on the ground."

As she watched dispatchers handle numerous calls, Mikulski said she was impressed with the calm, steady tone of voice that responders used to assure callers.

"The talent is ready now," she said. "We have to get the technology ready."

The county is reorganizing two floors of space in the Circuit Courthouse and will begin construction on the new center once that effort is completed. Consolidating the agency on two floors will be more practical than the current space that is divided by a circuitous tunnel, said Marie Whisonant, center chief, who expects the 911 Communications Center to be operating in its new quarters by the end of 2011.

"We will have the best of all worlds, while this project is going on," Whisonant said. "We can work in this space, while construction is going on in the new space."

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