Starting today (Wednesday), Harford County's 200,000-plus 911 calls will be dispatched from a new and, according to county officials, much-improved location.
The county's new Department of Emergency Services building, next to the old Emergency Operations Center on Route 543 in Hickory, will officially host all the 911 dispatch functions beginning this morning.
Although the county unveiled the $40 million, 110,000-square-foot building in November 2014, it has not been fully operational.
Moving the 911 functions will take a coordinated effort that will feature several redundancies, as Department of Emergency Services Director Edward Hopkins said Tuesday he hopes to avoid any possible disruptions in the 911 system.
The move includes three parts: physically moving the dispatch center, activating the county's new radio interoperablity system and activating the county's phone system, a voiceover IT system.
"We will go operational at 7 a.m. tomorrow morning," Hopkins said Tuesday, explaining all staff members and administrators, as well as vendors for all the technology, will be on hand in the building that day. "There is always the possibility of glitches and hiccups and things like that, that could cause problems, so we are actually going to handle the move much like a disaster situation."
The busiest time for the emergency officials will be from 7 a.m. to noon, when the system is first being set up, he said.
To prevent dropped calls, the phone lines will be transferred one at a time by Verizon, he said.
"That way, everything is connected and everything is moved in sequence," he said.
On the rare chance that a call is misrouted, it will get routed to another 911 center, out of county, Hopkins said.
"I think the likelihood of us dropping the call, although it could happen, is very, very small," he said, but added it remains a possibility.
"I am concerned. This is a big move for us," Hopkins said. "We will have a lot of people working, monitoring phones, making sure nothing gets dropped."
"I am confident in my staff, that we have got everything covered, but I am concerned. We want to make sure we have everyone on board," he said.
The move to the new emergency center will also feature an activation of the new radio interoperability system, which Hopkins called an unusually progressive network.
The system, which county leaders have spent five to seven years designing, will connect every stakeholder in emergency operations in the county.
"We are one of the first [in the state] to be totally interoperable," he said.
"It's a big, big day for us, pretty exciting," he said, explaining it is taking Harford in a new direction. "We have become a premier telecommunications center for the state."
The three municipalities of Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace will be integrated into the system later, "a week or two after we get operational tomorrow," he said.
"Harford County, I think, is on the cutting edge of this kind of technology," he said.
The room where 911 dispatchers must spend eight to 10 hours a day, not being allowed to leave the building, has also been updated dramatically, he said.
Hopkins said it is important for dispatchers to be in as comfortable an environment as possible, which will include well-designed chairs and keyboards, as well as features like adjustable lighting.
"This room has the ability to have different lighting, so the employee can work easier with less stress and less anxiety," he noted.
"Dispatchers are the third triad [of emergency response] that most people don't really see or hear about," Hopkins said, explaining the dispatcher is the first person the public typically encounters.
"There's a lot of things they do that the public doesn't see," he said. "Everyone knows that the work environment you are working in can make you a happy person or a sad person. We are trying to make it a very positive environment, in a very high-risk, high-stress situation."
Besides the new dispatch and phone systems, the county's Office of Information and Communication Technology will also move into the emergency operations center in the next few weeks, according to a press release sent Tuesday.
The move from the county's Main Street headquarters will save the government about $46,000, according to the press release.
The emergency building already houses the county's data center, including servers and networking equipment, according to the release. Back-up generators will also enhance continuity in case of a power failure.
By early April at the latest, 23 ICT employees will move, according to the release.
Harford County Executive Barry Glassman said he will hold off on the originally-planned second phase for the emergency building, which included a facility for the county's radio shop. The county recently agreed to temporarily lease space for the radio shop instead.
The old Emergency Operations Center, meanwhile, may not be around much longer.
Hopkins said the plan is to demolish the building "at some point."
"I recommended that, since we moved out, the building would be in need of some definite repairs if it were refurbished, but I did suggest demolishing it," he said.