Emergency Communications Center's Debut Nearing


(Tuesday, December 11, 2007 8:15 PM EST)

A year and a half in the making, it's down to the finishing touches on Arlington's $38 million new Emergency Communications Center (ECC) in the Courthouse area.

With its last significant upgrades in 1993, the county's communications facility was due for a makeover, but the main catalyst for the project was the ECC's need for a new digital radio system.

The ECC, part of the county government's Office of Emergency Management, currently uses an analog system, but wanted to make the switch to an $18 million digital system in order to increase capacity and coverage. Arlington is the first jurisdiction in the region to go digital.

“The radio system was the first concern, and in order to run the new system, we needed a new center,” said radio systems manager Lisa Thompson.

In addition to the new radios, the 8,800-square-foot center offers more office space than the current facility, and has allowed the number of call-taking work stations to increase from 16 to 30.

The number of 911 lines also has increased, from 16 to 48, and all calls will be distributed evenly, which will allow for “more call equity and better response,” Office of Emergency Management program manager John Stevens said.

“The goal was to increase our capacity,” said 911 system and resource manager Jeffrey Horwitz. “We want to prepare for catastrophic events.”

Primary funding for the new ECC and the new radio system came from bonds issued by Arlington's Industrial Development Authority.

The call-taking and dispatch stations all have custom furniture, which Stevens considers “a real highlight in technology and ergonomics.”

To make the call-takers' and dispatchers' 12-hour shifts more pleasant, each station has a “personal comfort system” with individually controlled air conditioning and heating.

The stations can be raised or lowered, allowing the call-takers and dispatchers either to stand or sit.

Careful attention was paid to the center's acoustics. Special acoustical fabrics line the walls, and the ceiling and lighting systems reduce noise through a combination of concave and convex reflective panels.

The new center also is home to 14 50-inch monitors, which can display a wide variety of feeds, including traffic cameras, security cameras and eight television tuners, simultaneously - a step up from the current 32-inch televisions that display one feed at a time.

Other features of the space include 100-percent energy-efficient fluorescent lighting and Energy Star-rated equipment and synchronized clocks, not to mention electronically controlled blinds.

The design of the new 911 center was a cooperative effort among the emergency communications staff.

A focus group of all the call-takers and dispatchers helped determine the center's design, from the color scheme down to the carpeting. And supervisors had the chance to custom design their offices to fit their needs.

“It really matters that the call-takers and dispatchers got a voice,” Horwitz said. “We have leadership that is inclusive and that let us be part of the process.”

Construction began in early spring this year, and the hope is the new ECC will be up and running in March. Office of Emergency Management staff are eager to move to the new space.

“We want to move now!” Thompson said.

Office of Emergency Management managers Paula Shephard and Jeffrey Horwitz stand in front of one of the custom designed dispatcher desks in the county government’s new emergency communications center, set to open early next year.
(Photo by Kristen Armstrong)

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