A municipal law enforcement agency, sheriff’s office, or fire station includes numerous departments and functions. One of the most crucial areas of a facility is its 9-1-1 dispatch center.
Recent incidents and safety concerns have prompted some county officials to explore renovating or building new dispatch center facilities. Due to their critical nature, dispatch center design and construction comes with unique considerations.
1. Safety and Security
One of the first considerations includes the placement of the dispatch center within a facility to help minimize the potential for disruption. It’s important to prevent tampering, unauthorized entry, or the ability for an individual to access emergency response systems and those who operate them. An emergency dispatch center is the last thing you want to go down in a community.
Current best practices include placing dispatch centers near the center of a building away from exterior windows and doors. This positioning can help prevent vandalism or restricted entry as was the case in 2020 when protestors threw a molotov cocktail through a Dane County, Wisconsin, building window, necessitating the evacuation of 9-1-1 operators. Other incidents might include a vehicle driving through an exterior wall or window. While unlikely and unthinkable, mitigating such threats helps ensure that operators can continue to serve the public without disruption.
To further ensure the safety and availability of operators, facilities should position dedicated restrooms and a break room inside the call center. This allows dispatchers to remain in the area to respond to needs and also improves efficiencies.
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2. Redundancy and Backup Systems
To many businesses, redundancies are something to be avoided and translate into inefficiencies. In a 9-1-1 dispatch center, however, redundancy is a necessity. If something fails (phone lines, computer monitors, recording devices, security cameras, power grid, etc.), the dispatch center must be able to immediately switch to a reliable backup system to maintain normal operations.
A major part of a 9-1-1 dispatch center construction project is upgrading legacy systems and making sure that every system has a backup. Systems should also seamlessly synchronize with neighboring counties to roll over to their systems in the event the other’s phone lines are full.
The role that a construction company plays in technology and power system integrations isn’t always thought of up front, but obtaining and coordinating the specialty contractors authorized to work on such systems in tandem with the construction team is critical. Construction teams often need to work with them early on during the design phase to ensure proper power placement, access panels, cable routing, backup power systems, and much more. Capacity for future technology upgrades also needs to be factored in. When considering a construction management team or contractor, be sure they have experience and an in-depth knowledge of regulatory requirements regarding technology integration and backup systems.
3. Disaster Preparedness
Another related consideration is disaster preparedness. The design and construction of a 9-1-1 call center must be able to withstand potential disruptions caused by a tornado, severe storms, widespread fires, or other natural or man-made disasters.
Facilities should be equipped with an emergency operations center (EOC). This is a separate command center that will serve as a headquarters for strategizing incident management, coordinating information, and deploying disaster response. The central command area should be large enough for other counties, the National Guard, FEMA, or other agencies to facilitate operations and orchestrate their response plan. Planning for ample power and communications is yet again a major consideration, and the construction planning team should understand and adhere to the numerous associated regulations.
4. Dispatcher Mental Health
Being a 9-1-1 dispatcher is arguably one of the most stressful, demanding, and mentally draining professions. Dispatchers are constantly on the receiving end of highly distressed individuals and need to keep a clear and calm head in the midst of someone else's “worst day” scenario. Perhaps this is why more than half of all 9-1-1 operators leave their jobs within the first two years.
Improving their working environment and supporting the well-being of dispatchers should be another main focus when designing a dispatch center. Poor lighting can negatively impact moods and can become an issue since the placement of dispatch centers is often near the center of a facility and away from windows. Investing in quality adjustable lighting can be helpful. For dispatch centers near outer walls, high, secure windows placed near the ceiling can offer natural light without compromising security.
Acoustics are another consideration, especially since many dispatch centers include lots of screens, electronics, and flat surfaces that can make for a noisy environment. Incorporating sound-dampening materials can help minimize distractions. Use inviting colors and design principles to create a calming, homey atmosphere while limiting bright colors and patterns. Place comfortable seating in break rooms and design clean, spacious restrooms with a few extra amenities. These small touches can help workers feel more comfortable in their surroundings and allow them to decompress before returning to their shifts.
5. Dispatcher Physical Wellbeing
In addition to mental well-being is a dispatcher’s physical well-being. Even more so than a typical office worker, dispatchers need to be available at all times and often spend their entire shift sitting and staring at screens.
Providing ergonomic task chairs and adjustable desks that allow an operator to sit or stand can help prevent physical ailments like lower back pain, shoulder pain, and muscle aches. Properly positioned monitors and lighting can help reduce eye strain. Designing wrap-around consoles with efficiency in mind will also help reduce unnecessary repetitive motions while allowing for easy viewing of monitors.
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6. Making the Transition
Design and construction of a dispatch center is challenging, but so too is the process of moving in and switching over systems. There needs to be zero downtime. Long before the transition, operators need to be trained on any new systems, become accustomed to their new surroundings, and fully understand any differences from their previous processes.
Stepping back even further, it’s ideal for 9-1-1 operators and emergency responders to be part of the planning process. They’re the ones who can identify improvements over existing surroundings and systems. Being a part of the planning process also helps create a sense of ownership that can go a long way in improving retention rates.
The construction manager plays a critical role, serving as a liaison between sheriffs, project owners, dispatchers, contractors, subcontractors, technology providers, regulatory agencies, and a host of other entities. Coordinating all the parts and pieces in this highly regulated industry should not be left to a construction firm without experience or a deep understanding of the process.
The Samuels Group has worked with numerous law enforcement agencies and jail facilities throughout Wisconsin and Iowa and can help ensure that your 9-1-1 dispatch center construction project is a success and remains in compliance. Contact our team of experts today to discuss your needs. Also, be sure to download our Jail Construction Planning Guide below for additional information on other areas of a justice center.
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