By Michael Jacobs
The computers are in place. The furniture is on its way. The staff has been hired. The training is proceeding every day.
Soon, Sandy Springs and Johns Creek will pick the exact date, and their joint 911 center will go live, dramatically increasing local control over public safety and, officials say, improving the service and protection Sandy Springs residents receive.
Sandy Springs Police Chief Terry Sult and Larry Consalvos, the senior vice president and general manager of iXP, the firm hired to launch and operate the 911 center, provided the Sandy Springs Reporter a preview tour of the center July 2.
The center, the operational home of the Chattahoochee River 911 Authority, or Chatcomm, fills 16,000 square feet on the fourth floor of a secure building overlooking Georgia 400 at the intersection of Barfield Road and Mount Vernon Highway in Sandy Springs. The two cities are spending a total of $5.6 million on the facility, the equipment and the initial staffing.
“We looked for the most hardened space we could find,” Consalvos said, then significantly upgraded the power conduits, the air conditioning, the plumbing and other systems to make the space self-sufficient. If need be, the fourth floor can be sealed off from the outside air and run on its own generator.
Five months ago, the site was a shell of bare concrete and exposed piping. Now, thanks to the rapid work of contractor Humphreys & Co., it is the comfortable home of a cutting-edge communications center that will dispatch the emergency services of two cities, coordinate their activities with those of neighboring jurisdictions, and provide the data and analysis Sult’s department needs to respond more efficiently to crime and become more proactive in protecting public safety.
The center has two sides: the communications center and the space for its employees, and the administrative and police services area.
On the administrative side, in addition to offices for iXP and the Chatcomm leadership, a conference room, the technology center, an emergency operations center, and storage space, is the Sandy Springs Police Department’s Fusion Center. There, Sult expects to take real-time crime analysis and forecasting to a higher level.
Also on that side of the building is the training center, where Chatcomm’s initial employees are being prepared to handle all the police, fire and EMS calls for Sandy Springs and Johns Creek, as well as the calls that involve automatic-aid agreements with neighboring jurisdictions.
In mid-June, when only 10 people had been offered jobs with Chatcomm, officials in both cities were worried iXP wouldn’t reach the minimum staffing of 40 in time for the 911 center to go live July 30 as planned. But iXP hired 74 people and got them into training by the end of the month.
Consalvos said that total exceeds the planned full staffing for the communications center. Some employees are expected to wash out during the training, though about 70 percent are experienced emergency communicators.
Still, Sult said Chatcomm is likely to delay its launch by 15 to 30 days to avoid too much compression of the training schedule. Fulton County agreed to extend the 911 service it provides the cities by as much as 60 days, and Sult said the cities soon will pick the new date, likely to be in mid-to-late August.
“We want to be 110 percent comfortable that everything’s going to go off without a hitch, so we don’t want to artificially press a particular deadline date,” said Sult, who is the vice chairman of Chatcomm.
Consalvos said the extra time will allow more thorough training, including police and fire ride-alongs in both cities for every employee. Each firefighter and police officer in Sandy Springs and Johns Creek also will spend time in the communications center.
“Any time you have interaction between those who are on the street and those that are in the communication center and you develop personal relationships, you’re going to get better-quality service. It just creates a stronger sense of teamwork,” Sult said.
The communications center is the heart of the facility and its largest room. Banks of large flat screens cover the walls, each capable of showing a range of real-time traffic, weather and dispatch data, as well as TV feeds. Workstations with three or four monitors, two keyboards, phones and other communications equipment are divided into a training section, a call-taker section, and a police and fire dispatch section. But every station can be used for any of those jobs, and everyone is being cross-trained so the center can adjust to changing emergency needs.
Sult and Consalvos said flexibility is the key. The length and staffing of shifts will be adjusted to meet the workload, with the initial plan calling for seven to 14 communicators in the center at a time. The center has five full-time supervisors who can jump in and handle calls, as well as a full-time training coordinator — training is a part of the monthly work schedule — and a full-time quality-control person. Everything is logged, recorded and audited, all synchronized with an atomic clock.
Because the center is a 24/7 operation that could lead to extended hours for employees in an emergency, the amenities to make the space self-sufficient are important. In addition to the standard coffee bar, vending machines and restrooms, there are showers and space for bunks, and every employee gets a locker. The facility has a small workout room and a quiet room.
“We really expect to raise the bar on the level of service,” Consalvos said. “The communities require it; they deserve it.”