VIRGINIA CITY – Most people know to call 911 when they need help in an emergency situation. It’s become an instinctive reaction in today’s modern society, and it’s usually a critical first step in resolving a serious situation. But few people really know whom they are talking to when they pick up the phone and make the call for help.
The 911 communications center for Madison County moved this summer from the basement of the county courthouse down the road to the same building as the departments of Public Health and Emergency Management. And in doing so, the County ensured the survivability of the 911 communications and emergency operations center in the event of a disaster, said Steve DiGiovanna, communications coordinator and deputy director of emergency management for Madison County.
“We needed to get out of that courthouse because it was in a place that was an unreinforced masonry building, very susceptible to seismic events,” said DiGiovanna. “Security issues were a major concern.”
The move expanded the 911 center from a 250 square foot space in the courthouse basement to over 1,400 square feet. The courthouse was built in 1875 and is vulnerable to seismic events of consequence, DiGiovanna said. The 911 communications and emergency operations center needs to be ready for everything and anything, from earthquakes and fires to floods and severe winter storms.
The new facility serves as either 911 communications, or dispatch center, as well as well as a command post for community leaders in the event of an emergency.
“It’s a location where if something serious, complex and of long duration occurs that requires management to get together and make collaborative decisions, it provides a place for them to meet, stay up on top of the information because dispatch is right next door,” DiGiovanna said of the emergency operations center.
The communications officers who answer the phones at the 911 center play an equally important role with first responders. They’re the first link in a chain of operations set into place to provide aid and assistance to anyone and everyone who needs it.
“The truth is that the 911 center are the people behind the scenes of everything else that happens,” DiGiovanna said. “When people need to know something relative to what is happening in the county, either emergency or not emergency related, it falls in our laps. So we need to be able to communicate what we know with them.“
When a call comes in to the 911 communications center, the communications officers must interpret information given by the caller to determine who needs to be called. From there, the officer notifies the proper agency with jurisdictional responsibility for the call. And while the phones may have been slow late Friday morning, communications officer Linda Hamrock is ready for action anywhere in the county.
“It’s up to us to know who needs to go,” she said. “It is stressful, but I think maybe the most challenging is when you have somebody that is distraught on the phone and they can’t really help you.”
Inside the 911 center there are three dispatch stations, fully customizable with multiple phones, radios and computer monitors at each station for the seven regular communications officers that rotate through in shifts throughout the week.
The cost of the new 911 communications and emergency operations center was approximately $140,000, DiGiovanna said. The county replaced their backup power supply with a commercial grade diesel generator. The generator can power the entire building, included large refrigerators where vaccinations are kept at the Public Health Department.
DiGiovanna credits the Madison County Sheriff, IT director Karen Brown and Janet Fortner for a smooth transition in moving to the new facility. And while the emergency operations center may not get used 99 percent of the time, DiGiovanna said, when its needed its needed for very important reasons.
“You call 911, it comes here,” DiGiovanna said. “And this is the only place it comes. We better be able to answer the call of duty when someone expects us to do it, and we better be able to do it right.”