It appears the push is on for a new $40 million 911 center for Harford County to replace the emergency dispatch center in Hickory, but there's reason to question whether the timing for such a move is appropriate.
It's worth noting that in the past 10 to 15 years, the Harford County emergency dispatch operation has undergone substantial changes. It has made the transition from a loose amalgam of cooperative switchboards operated by the sheriff's office, other police agencies and the county's fire and ambulance emergency dispatch agency, to a single true emergency center that takes police, fire and ambulance emergency calls and dispatches the appropriate personnel and equipment.
It would be a mistake, however, to presume that the consolidation of 911 dispatch responsibilities has come without substantial investment in infrastructure. The Harford County Emergency Operations Center at Hickory has been in place in its current state for more than a decade, but what stands at the site today is a far cry from what was in place before the consolidation began.
Going back to the early 1990s, the Hickory operation was little more than a hodgepodge of garages, buildings and sheds that were once part of what was known as a Civil Defense operation. It was something of a remnant of the Cold War that had been modified for the purpose of coordinating fire and ambulance responses by notifying personnel from the appropriate volunteer fire and ambulance companies to respond to various kinds of emergencies when true 911 call systems first came into common use. It was successful enough that it made sense to add the police dispatch function to the Hickory 911 center. Meanwhile, a civil defense element was retained and the dispatch center fairly regularly ends up being turned into a true emergency coordination system in times of heavy weather. It also would become an emergency services nerve center in the event of other large scale disasters, for example, were something terrible to happen at Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station.
Recognizing the increased role of the Hickory Emergency Operations Center, the county government financed a major upgrade of the facility, resulting in what is in place today. To the casual observer, who may have noticed some construction equipment at the site a decade and a half ago, the change may have been subtle, but the inside of the facility is unrecognizable. Where dispatchers once worked out of a room that looked like it could have been part of a World War II movie's command and control set, the dispatch rooms in use now have an almost science fiction look about them.
Sure, it's worth talking about upgrading, or even adding onto the county's 911 operation. The demand for emergency services in Harford County has increased fairly substantially, even as population levels have remained relatively stable. Furthermore, the county is in the midst of something of a public safety crisis with regard to the future of its emergency ambulance service, and the degree to which that service will be depending on government-paid staff members.
Given that the Hickory 911 center is, in the realm of public buildings, relatively new and that the key issue of ambulance service is one that will need to be resolved before any new emergency operations center is planned, it makes sense to delay any serious planning for all but the most rudimentary of expansions to the Harford County 911 Emergency Operations Center.