The Bexar Metro 911 Network Quarry Run Regional Operations Center may look something like out of a spy thriller, but it is far cooler than that. The 911 dispatch facility is ready for anything humans or Mother Nature can throw at it — including 165-mph EF3-rated tornadoes.
The $40 million, 80,000-square-foot building is the backup location for 18 public safety answering points in the San Antonio metropolitan area, serving some 2.5 million residents. If a major event knocks out one or more of the PSAPs, that’s where call takers and dispatchers will go to ensure that local agencies can continue to help people in need.
It’s also the permanent emergency call center for the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, which occupies roughly 20 percent of the center’s 104 stations and dispatches units for 22 agencies. Part of the office’s job is to maintain the equipment and make sure it will be ready in a crisis, says spokesperson Lt. Aaron Von Muldau.
From the multiple data sources to the open plan layout of the 911 work stations, the focus at Quarry Run is on sharing information, Von Muldau says.
“In our old facility, we didn’t have the situational awareness we have today,” he says. “Just the ability to see each other is huge. Now, anyone can look up and see if a call taker or dispatcher is stressed out and can tie their consoles together if needed. Everyone can interact with everyone else.”
Increased situational awareness is exactly why more 911 call centers have upgraded their facilities in recent years. The centers are moving to take advantage of the latest technology to bring first responders together, not only through technology but in a renewed spirit of cooperation. Upgraded 911 call centers prepare first responders for upgrades in receiving video and other rich communications, but they also tie them together through teamwork and collaboration in an effort to enhance public safety.
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911 Call Centers Evolve as Tech Advances
Quarry Run is truly state-of-the-art, with two Tier IV data centers and redundant mechanical, water and power systems. One wall holds dozens of 55-inch Planar monitors and 75-inch Samsung displays, providing call data and analytics. And 170 Axis Communications IP cameras help monitor security inside and out.
Each dispatcher sits in front of a bank of five screens powered by a Motorola Solutions VESTA-equipped 911 workstation. They interact with the computer-aided dispatch and records management systems to log calls and communicate electronically with first responders, also using digital P25 radios. In addition, dispatchers look at multiple location maps, national and state crime information center databases, body camera footage, and aerial videos. In 2015, the district enabled systems to allow texting to 911.
Emergency call centers have come a long way over the past three decades, says Brett Schneider, executive director of the Bexar Metro 911 Network, which oversees Quarry Run.
“911 is definitely evolving,” he says. “The call-delivery technology we were using was from the 1970s and 1980s. These systems are now moving from analog to IP. When I started 30 years ago, there was one type of technology: the analog landline call.”
When such a call came in, Schneider says, dispatchers had the caller’s physical address and knew exactly where to send the responding unit. Then came wireless in the late ’90s, followed by Voice over IP. While location information is provided with these technologies as well, some data may not be as accurate as a physical address, so 911 telecommunicators often need to gather additional information from the caller to determine a dispatchable location.
Schneider says Bexar Metro 911 plans to connect the facility directly to cameras operated by the Texas Department of Transportation, so dispatchers can view traffic on major San Antonio thoroughfares. It’s also preparing for the delivery of multimedia, including video, in next-generation 911 systems.
“The biggest thing in the future will be the ability for callers to send video of an accident or event as it’s happening, so our call takers and dispatchers can view it in near-real time,” he says. “This will allow the PSAP to provide the responding emergency units the information they need to formulate a quality response. It’s imperative as an industry that we continue to evolve in step with technology.”
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Minnesota Agencies Use Common Radio Communication System
In Washington County, Minn., a community of 250,000 residents east of St. Paul, the consolidated PSAP supports nine law enforcement agencies, 14 fire departments and nine emergency medical services, says Darlene Pankonie, communications manager for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.
Like their counterparts in San Antonio, dispatchers in Washington County sit at consoles facing multiple screens — in this case, a 42-inch display flanked on either side by 26- and 19-inch monitors.
Pankonie says operators run upward of 10 pieces of software at a time, including mapping applications, the national crime database for wanted persons, mass notification systems, freeway cameras and alarm systems for local businesses.
But Washington County has something not found at most 911 centers: a statewide radio communications system. The Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response was first launched in the Twin Cities in 2002, gradually adding more communities until it became complete as of 2018 with 99 percent of towers on the air across the state.
ARMER allows dispatchers to patch in first responders from other municipalities as needed. Public safety agencies can extend ARMER to any approved location with the support of the proper equipment, including a Cisco 2911 router. ARMER reserve assets also include a Cisco mesh wireless access point for establishing remote communications. Pankonie says the system proved invaluable when the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed in August 2007, killing 13 people and injuring 145. In a performance review, first responders said the system was invaluable.
“In the past, we’d have to patch two channels for a firefighter to talk to a police officer,” Pankonie says. “They didn’t use the same frequencies on their radios. Now, anybody can talk to anybody, anywhere in the state, with the flip of a switch.”
Today’s 911 operators have more information at their fingertips than ever before, as well as more technology to master and more stress to overcome. But the payoff for the public is worth it, Pankonie says.
“Technology has made our jobs easier, and it has made them harder,” she says. “Being a dispatcher is a very demanding job — it takes a year just to train someone. But technology is helping us help people better. The more advanced location technology we can use, the better we can find people and help them.”
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Steuben County, N.Y., Embraces Text 911
The hardest parts of modernizing 911 centers are securing funds for new technology and persuading dispatchers and field personnel to give new solutions a chance, says David Hopkins, director of Steuben County 911.
Located in upstate New York’s wine country, Steuben County features 100,000 full-time residents spread across 1,400 square miles. The lone PSAP serves 46 fire departments, 19 law enforcement agencies and 22 EMS groups.
Steuben County did not have any 911 service or PSAPs until May 2005, Hopkins says. At first, some county police and fire personnel resisted the changes.
“As with any significant technology deployment, there were participants who embraced the efforts, and others who initially resisted but later became supporters,” he says. “One by one, all those who’d pushed back realized that what we were introducing made their jobs easier.”
Now, first responders in the county are connected to dispatch via Android handsets. Steuben County was the first county in New York to enable citizens to text 911, and it’s currently deploying a fiber-based emergency services internet to support next-generation 911 systems.