A rural Missouri county consolidates its public safety PSAP and dispatch operations to contend with creeping urbanization and tourism
Branson, MO, has earned the nickname of “The Second Nashville,” with its country music theaters, restaurants, theme museums and outlet malls. Just a few miles “down the pike” from Branson is Stone County, MO, with a permanent resident population of about 30,000. Stone County has its share of attractions, too, such as the Silver Dollar City theme park and the Ozarks’ recreational lakes. Millions of tourists visit the area each year, which increases the potential for boating, auto and tour bus accidents and, consequently, the volume of 9-1-1 calls.
In this area that was historically rural, 9-1-1 services had been non-existent until the recent exponential growth. Stone County had relied on two dispatch centers: one operated by the county sheriff’s department and one in Kimberling City’s police department. Citizens with emergencies had to call a standard seven-digit number. In 1996, however, Stone County voters approved funding for 9-1-1 service and new public safety computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems. They followed up in 1998 by approving construction of a new, centralized dispatch center. The center brings 16 public safety agencies under one umbrella, which has been a national trend for smaller to mid-size communities that cannot afford dispatch centers in each individual town or for each agency.
Malcom Vedane, director of Stone County Emergency Services (SCES), said, “We have 16 different tax-funded government independent agencies all agreeing to come under one roof for central communications. We’ve got new FCC licenses, new repeaters for signal strength scattered around the county and a new tower ‘out back.'”
The building and site contruction and the equipment installation was finished in February. The center went to 24-hour rotating shifts with simulated calls on March 1, and it went live on March 14. By the beginning of April, the center had already taken 1,800 calls.
A public safety barnraising
Centralization can make enhanced 9-1-1 communications more affordable for small-town America.
“Five years ago, counties of the 30,000 population range couldn’t afford the technology it took to do all this. But with the technology explosion and the implosion of prices, it became affordable,” Vedane said.
All it takes is approval, planning and organization (which is easy enough to say). Dave Wunderlin, general manager of mobile radio dealer Radio Communications Specialists (RCS), Joplin, MO, a principal vendor for the new center, said that preparing and organizing was important in the centralization of county 9-1-1 services.
“That’s the whole key-data gathering and knowing what infrastructure is out there and what user equipment is out there before you even start to design your system,” Wunderlin said.
Centralizing several public safety agencies and working with different vendors requires everyone’s cooperation. Wunderlin said that all the agencies involved had to be partners. “From the guy I interface my radio with to the console system [supplier], everybody has to be on the same playing field.”
With only one 9-1-1-dispatch center in the county, reliability is important, too, and Vedane has made efforts to ensure the trustworthiness of Stone County’s center. “It’s very, very crucial that if you’re going to have centralization, that you have dependability,” he said.
Vedane made sure there was redundancy in the telephone lines, electric power and grounding. SCES has telephone cables coming into the building from two central telephone offices. One cable from downtown Branson and one cable from Branson West connect the telcos to the center at two separate building entries. “If the cable gets cut this way, to downtown Branson, I’m still alive from the cable feeding out this way,” Vedane said, indicating the redundant entry.
SCES also converts all electric power from ac to dc for reliability purposes. Everything in the center, including lights, works off dc power.
“I have no spikes, no dips, no interruption,” Vedane said. The center has its own generators and backup universal power supply, with enough redundancy to remain in operation for two hours, even if the generator fails.
The Ozark mountains breed thunderstorms, so lightning is always a threat at this highest site in the county. Because SCES sits 1,400 above sea level, with the top of the tower reaching 160 feet above ground level, the center’s designers implemented a thorough grounding scheme. The grounding system provides less than 5V resistance to ground. Internally, it has zero ground potential difference. The center has a complete halo ring, with every piece of equipment, every length of fence and every antenna grounded. Lightning transients would have to pass through three filters before reaching the universal power supply. Every cable is busbarred-inside at the grounding field, outside at the tower and again at every antenna. The last defense against any surge is a thick grounding cable that is buried three feet deep and backfilled with black soil. Humidity from inside the SCES building is pumped into the fill soil, which keeps it moist to decrease resistivity. The pressure points are all cadwelded, so no loose connection exists anywhere.
“The groundwheel is the most critical part of the communications center, Vedane said. “Dealing with the dollars we have invested in this equipment, it would just be foolish not to have the best ground field.” Vedane said the $4,000 to $5,000 price tag to construct the grounding field was minor compared to other project costs and to the damage it would prevent.
Decisions, decisions, decisions
The total cost to construct the center,and to install all the equipment and services, was $1,200,000, and nothing was left to be desired. Since the SCES board was first appointed in 1997, Vedane and other members have worked diligently on the center’s planning and construction. They attended trade shows, such as the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials-International (APCO) Conference and the Missouri National Emergency Number Association (NENA) Conference, and read “volumes of trade magazines.” They also visited other centers that were under construction or were upgrading.
In its search for vendors, which Vedane calls “technical partners,” the board took a minimum of three bids on each subsystem, such as the CAD system, voice recording and logging, and the radio system itself. In some cases, the board took five bidders. Vedane considered customer satisfaction, installation practices, pricing, and follow-up service and upgrades to be key points for reviewing proposals.
“Our theory was to start off as close to the leading edge as we could, without taking technical risks … and then direct the budget so we could stay there,” Vedane said. With the CAD system that Vedane chose, Stone County will have four new versions a year. Global Dispatch Technology, Oklahoma City, provided the CAD system, CAD Assist 2.4, which is supported by quarterly updates. [See “Computer-aided Dispatch Comes to the Ozarks,” MRT, August 1999] Global Dispatch specializes in systems for centers serving small and mid-size
communities that need dispatching and mapping. CAD Assist is customer-configurable and features integrated advanced mapping and geographical districting technology.
Baker Integrated Technologies, Atlanta, provided the center’s telephone and radio interface, Dispatchworks. This system uses a sophisticated graphical user interface (GUI) to integrate advance call-taking and dispatch features including radio, telephone, E9-1-1, TDD and instant recall recording. Its modular design allows system expansion through the addition of hardware. It can be configured through software settings with all console equipment being physically identical, so meeting future demands can be done with simple migration.
The enactment of more rigorous
E9-1-1 requirements means automatic number identification and automatic location identification, mapping and addresses have to be accurate-and those addresses all had to be entered. That mandate posed a challenge to the SCES team. Most of the county roads were only known by numbers, and many street names and addresses were similar. So, the department had to put the county through an address conversion.
The department solicited the aid of the Stone County Historical Society to help preserve the area’s “naming” history, and then it formed a road-naming committee of local citizens and government officials. The cities within the county cooperated also, and although the county did not have jurisdiction over city addressing, the mayors could deflect any complaints by citing county 9-1-1 requirements. Some citizens did object to their new road names, but the department did not budge because of the importance of dispatch accuracy.
Recording and logging calls is crucial to 9-1-1 for both training and accountability purposes. Vedane chose the Voice Pro recorder by Racal Recorders.
“Voice Pro is probably considered the Cadillac of recorders. There are several things we didn’t ‘go cheap’ on. One is the recorder,” Vedane said.
Another integral part of the center that received generous funding was the furniture. The call station tables are powered so that they can be raised and lowered independently from the monitors. The chairs, provided by Domore, are “outstanding for comfort and durability,” said Vedane, which is important when they are going to be used 24 hours a day.
RCS provided all the radio equipment and repeaters.
“We did a lot of work with [Stone County] upfront.” Wunderlin said. “In the entire process, we’ve been an integral part, from the conception of their 9-1-1 services, and we were a major provider of services for a lot of user groups, which are going to be internal customers to the Stone County 9-1-1.” Wunderlin said that SCES is a full, well-rounded service center. (See “Radio Communications” on page 28.) RCS used Tait control stations, base stations and repeaters. The company contracted out the tower construction to Southwest Communications in Springfield, MO.
“All of the products are modular components. If a power supply fails, you can swap out a power supply. They are also rated for continuous duty. All of the off-site repeater sites are battery backed-up,” Wunderlin said.
Special touches for special people
The motto for SCES is “Committed to Excellence,” a goal that was evident in the special touches Vedane added when he planned the center and when he set the policies. Admittance to the dispatch room is restricted to on-duty dispatchers and supervisors.
“We want to set a tone of professionalism, which includes no visiting, no noise levels, no people laughing in the background while we’re dealing with somebody whose baby is choking,” Vedane said. “It gives employees a sense that they are not ‘going to work’ but ‘reporting to duty,’ and we emphasize that over and over again.”
Many accommodations in the center are geared toward benefiting the people on duty. It has a full kitchen, lockers in the restrooms, a shower and a half bath to save trips to the main restroom. The center has two large windows on either side of the operations room, one in the kitchen directly behind the main operations room, and one in the supervisor’s room in front. Employees can easily see outside at any time.
The hot-water tap even has a circulator pump on it so that employees do not have to wait for the hot water to flow from the water heater.
“It’s a little more expensive,” Vedane said, “but it does encourage people to wash their hands. They don’t have to sit there waiting for hot water to show up. We’re constantly thinking about how we can help the emergency communications specialist. We want to reinforce how important they are, to reduce stress.” The air is even filtered differently in various parts of the building. The air circulates twice as fast in the kitchen and supervisor room, on either side of dispatch, for fresher air to prevent illness.
Although the operations area is off-limits to visitors, a large glass panel separating the conference room and dispatch room can accommodate scout groups, fire groups and board of director meetings that wish to observe operations. “We didn’t want to freeze the people out because it [the center] really is the people’s,” Vedane said. “We built it that way, and they can’t see anything that is confidential from that perspective.”
The center’s grounds even have an area to set out lawn chairs and picnic tables. Barbeques are being planned so that 9-1-1 dispatchers can mix socially with the sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and ambulance teams.
Room for expansion
Stone County was ranked as the 31st fastest-growing county in the United States last year. Branson development is expanding west into the county, which boasts big lakes, rolling hills and mountain bluffs. With such rapid growth, the emergency services department has allowed room for expansion as well. Currently, the center has four main dispatch positions. By 2007, SCES plans to add two additional dispatch positions by relocating the wall that separates the conference room from the operations room.
When Stone Coun-ty built this centralized dispatch center, the emergency services department not only took the growth of the county into consideration, it also chose vendors that would update equipment and provide technical support so that the center would not slip back in technology or size. The center was built on one acre in Branson West, donated by Stonebridge Village, which is a private residential community. That one acre was all that Stone County needed to locate its building, tower, parking lot and picnic area. The scenic lot even includes bit of wildlife. A curious red fox was one of the first visitors to the new center earlier this year.