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VOL. 118 | NO. 51 | Friday, March 26, 2004

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What could be considered the main intersection of Memphis riverfront is rapidly becoming the subject of lively discussion and

City, County 911 Dispatchers to Share Space

ANDREW BELL

The Daily News

Beginning July 1, phone bills for all Shelby County residents and businesses will include a 911 service fee increase to help fund a new emergency communications facility slated for completion in 2008.

Coming together. Officials involved with the plan that will place about 230 city and county 911 dispatch employees under one roof said the four-year building process is actually shorter than the time it took to bring the project to fruition.

Its been three and a half years working on this project, but many attempts have been made over the past 25 years to build a new public safety communications center, said Raymond Chiozza, director of the Shelby County E911 District.

Though the design of the new structure is not yet complete, all the 911 district lacks is final approval from the Shelby County Commission for use of about 15 acres in Shelby Farms for the 94,000-square-foot building.

The project has faced political and funding hurdles.

As a past 911 board member, I am thrilled to see this will be a reality, said Shelby County Commission member Deidre Malone. Its crucial that we have all these departments in the same building.

Cooperation difficult. Currently, the Memphis Police Departments emergency call center is located Downtown in the Criminal Justice Center at 201 Poplar Ave. and the citys fire department call center is in Midtown. The county fire and Sheriffs Office call centers are located near Shelby Farms.

Emergency calls are electronically routed to the appropriate center according to the location of the caller. Cell phone emergency calls are automatically routed by wireless carriers.

MPD special projects officer Maj. Mark Collins said currently, city police radio frequencies differ from those of the county Sheriffs Office, making cooperation between the two entities difficult and potentially compromising public safety.

That difference can cause time constraint problems if an emergency call placed to one agency needs to be transferred to another one, Collins said. But in the same headquarters, instead of having to get additional resources from other agencies, it will be easy to just walk across the hall to the supervisor for any of the departments. Theyll be able to deploy resources immediately.

The long-term goal is for anyone in the county to be able to readily switch a frequency and talk to one another.

More space. The proposed building also will create a better work environment for the four divisions and increase office space, Collins said, adding that the citys current police call center was established in 1982 when the department managed four precincts. Today, it runs eight precincts.

In 2003, an average of 60,000 911 calls were routed to the MPD call center every month.

Chiozza said the consolidated center also will include backup emergency dispatch space for Germantown, Bartlett and Millington in case a severe storm or other emergency caused the municipalities individual centers to shut down.

The new center will contain training space and will be designed to withstand earthquakes, storms and terrorist attacks, Collins said.

It wont be a fortress, but communications must survive (in the event of an emergency), he said.

Fee hikes. The 25-cent 911 service fee currently charged on monthly phone bills for residential lines in Shelby County will be raised to 65 cents. The current 50-cent fee charged for business lines will increase to $1.30.

The most recent 911 service fee increase was in 1986. The fee was lowered in 1992. The planned rate increases will move the districts rates from their ranking as the lowest in the state to the mid-range of Tennessee counties.

A Tennessee Emergency Communications Board representative said Memphis and Shelby Countys multi-use approach to the call center is the first such effort in the state. To help in the planning process, representatives of the countys E911 District visited San Diegos emergency communications center, which underwent similar changes in the late 1990s.

Technology upgrades. Chiozza said the city and county are one step away from completing a $4.6 million federally mandated upgrade of the wireless communications technology in every dispatch center.

The effort was funded by a percentage of a monthly $1 charge on all cell phone bills, paid to the TECB.

Collins said the costs involved in enhancing communications technology justify the creation of a shared space that merges technology services.

When it involves spending communication dollars, you can get into the millions very quickly, so sharing a space only makes sense, he said. It would be tremendously expensive if each of us had to go out separately to construct communication buildings. Thats not a good plan.

Shared goal. Chiozza said Metro Memphis population increases make for unique emergency response challenges.

We have DeSoto, Fayette, and Shelby counties all booming, and the boundaries are not going to change, he said. So you have to face those issues regardless of lines; you have to work to overcome those problems to ensure public safety.

Collins said the realization of the emergency center after years of effort is refreshing.

It was a matter of the time being right and people being able to put aside territorial issues and say, Lets do whats best for the people out there doing the job, he said. Sometimes in the past weve had turf wars you dont play in my sandbox and I wont play in yours.

But finally, enough voices said, Look, were all doing the same thing providing help.

 

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