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Harford's emergency center at capacity – replacement is planned

In a dimly-lit room north of Bel Air, dispatchers stand by for emergency phone calls from all over Harford County.

These dispatchers work out of the Harford County Emergency Operations Center building, also commonly referred to as the 911 Center, off of Ady Road in Hickory and even though the center employs 70 dispatchers, Emergency Manager Rick Ayers said there's a need for more.

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Ayers led members of the Whiteford Community Council through the building Thursday evening, spending a good amount of time in the 911 Center, where the emergency calls are received. The 911 Center covers the fire and EMS services calls, as well as various police agencies.

The center was the first in the country to become accredited in all three areas, Ayers said, and the second dispatch center in the world, coming in after a center in Canada.

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"You should feel very proud because they do a good job," he told his guests.

Of all the first-responders in the fire and EMS service, Ayers added that the "first first-responder" is the person who answers the initial 911 call. Although that person may continue to ask questions during the phone call, he also stressed that at some point, the call is automatically dispatched.

Ayers emphasized that the dispatch of emergency services is not delayed because the person remains on the call asking questions.

The dispatchers in the 911 center are surrounded by computer screens, allowing them access to a map for locating incidents, as well as an area to record information about the calls. There has been mention of expanding to a countywide dispatch system, which would encompass the municipalities and, potentially, the Maryland State Police, but Ayers said that would require an expansion of the building.

They are operating at 100 percent capacity, he added, preventing them from adding services.

In the 911 center, a couple of steps down a ramp leads visitors to two pods, the fire dispatch pod and the police dispatch pod, which are kept separate from the call takers. The police dispatch pod features someone for the northern precinct, the southern precinct, a back-up and the shift supervisor.

Because of their limited space, Ayers said the shift supervisor is unable to supervise properly, but has to cover radio calls as well.

"We're hoping in the future we can solve that issue," he said, calling it a "weakness."

All stations were manned in the fire dispatch pod as well. The low lights in the room, Ayers later added after questioning, are to help reduce the glare from the multiple computer screens. The dispatch center also communicates with Peach Bottom nuclear plant, right over the line in Pennsylvania, and has the ability to set off sirens for the plant, which have also been used in case of tornado warnings.

The tour ended in the EOC room, where county officials and representatives from the municipalities gather during countywide emergencies to help with the decision making process. In the past year, Ayers said it has been activated three or four times, to include Tropical Storm Lee and the earthquake in August.

The EOC is decked out with rows of phones and laptops, with assigned seating for various county officials, including the sheriff and county executive. During full activation, Ayers said the room is hectic and loud.

Another drawback is the lack of sleeping quarters so when the EOC is activated because of weather emergencies and they cannot send people home after 12-hour shifts, Ayers said they end up sleeping on the floor or in empty offices.

This, too, could potentially be addressed in an expansion, as well the additional dispatchers needed for countywide coverage or if the sheriff's office ever adds a third precinct, he added.

The county executive included funding to start phase I of the project in fiscal year 2013, but the budget is still pending approval by the county council, according to Ayers. The funding set aside is $40 million for a replacement of the Emergency Operations Center, $20 million of which is being sought in the 2013 capital budget being reviewed by the council.

A feasibility study was done in 2004 and 2007 and the 2004 one determined that the center would need to triple its space, according to Ayers. An architectural design has been completed for the new building, which Ayers added they were asked to design with a 30-year life in mind.

The current dispatch center would remain open during construction, but once a new dispatch center is built, the old one will be demolished. Ayers pinpointed the current hazmat building on the Hickory property as the location for the new center.

"I'm hoping that it gets approved because we really need to expand," he said.

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