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Building Your Comm Center: Part One: PSAP Design

Author: Ernest W. Olds

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content,

Date: 2011-10-24
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Originally Published in our Jan/Feb 2002 issue.

Directors and operators of public safety answering points (PSAPs) have to manage budgets, personnel, politics, technology and most importantly, the public your agency serves.  Have you been on sidelines watching your colleagues in neighboring counties make major renovations or build a new facility while you struggle with 20-year old equipment in a 20-year old space?

This is an all too common refrain.  There are many valid reasons and many poor excuses.  If you are one of those PSAPs on the sidelines, you’ve heard them all.

Our firm, Becker Morgan Group, has a strategic partnership with another engineering firm, Allen & Shariff.  We call this effort “Comm Center Solutions.”  Together we have been canvassing PSAPs on the east coast to learn more about what issues are of the greatest concern to them.  As architects and engineers, our focus is on the physical environment and the integration of the technology with the “box” (building or space occupied by the PSAP).

What we have learned, we believe, can be a help to those considering a renovation to their existing comm center or to those planning a new center.  We intend to provide the reader with an overview of a broad range of topics.  We will offer some new ideas and trends in planning that we have witnessed.  We all share the ultimate objective of providing excellent customer service in the public safety arena.

Arlington County Public Safety Emergency Communications Center, Virginia. Photo: Kevin Willett/PSTC, 9-1-1 magazine Jan/Feb 2002 issue.

The first and most obvious consideration is your calls for service.  Whether you process all inbound calls to 9-1-1 or just dispatch calls processed by another center, or if you do both, you should be able to demonstrate a trend.  If you serve an interstate highway, you are likely to see a large increase in cell-based 9-1-1 calls.  The agencies you serve should be able to add their service records to yours for validation.

Second, examine your demographics.  We have found that cities and counties in high growth areas have the most pressure to improve their facilities.  This, obviously, is due to a net immigration of people.  Your state or local planning office can provide you with historic and projected population trends.

Next, look more closely at who these immigrants are.  Are they seniors looking to retire near the beach or in a rural setting?  Have the service boundaries of your fire, police, and EMS personnel been enlarged?  Has your area “benefited” from an expansion of a major highway or airport?

Third, when looking at your call volumes and population trends, don’t forget proportion.  One thousand new calls for service means a lot more if you had only two thousand calls last year than if you had twenty thousand.  Equipment and personnel established to serve a predicted call volume of twenty years ago will likely be overmatched today if you are in a growth area.

We think by examining your historical data and factoring in future trends you will be able to make a compelling argument when developing and defending a renovation, expansion or new construction budget.

Now, you may not be in a growth area but you’ve had the same radio system since 1979.  Here, your case can be made by examining the benefits of integrated communications, response time, and response accuracy.  But that’s a subject for another article.

Now for the nitty-gritty – we assume you can prove your need – what things you should concern yourself with in planning a new or renovated comm center? We recommend that you structure your analysis to include the topics listed below.  We always like to start with the big picture and then focus in on the details.

1. Where will the center be located?

You will need to develop a checklist of the desirable physical features of a prospective site as well as the features to be avoided.  One or more of these things may influence location:

  • Elevation – floods, tides, wet soils, antenna/satellite position
  • Proximity – trees, falling rocks, airports/highways, hazardous materials storage/manufacture/transportation
  • Land Use – zoning, easements, environment/conservation limits (soil, water, plants, trees, fish, birds, animals)
  • Utility – telephone, data, television, power, water, gas, sewer
  • Accessibility – by employees, public safety agencies, vendors, general public
  • Future Roles – will your center serve a greater geographic area? Will you serve more public safety agencies? Will you consolidate with other agencies?


2. What levels of disaster are you expected to survive?

Your center will be required to meet the local building, fire and health codes plus NFPA 1222 minimum standards.  Your center should be further hardened to resist a disaster and threat level that you as a director or manager are comfortable with.  Trends suggest that we are moving away from the cold-war mentality of burrowing underground to a more humane setting.  Concerns of having a single point of failure are mitigated by having redundant centers or at the very least a cooperative arrangement with a neighboring PSAP.  Some states have mandated shared communications frequencies and systems to facilitate such redundancy.

Generally, improving the structural performance of building frame, roofing, exterior walls and glazing will mitigate most threats.  Here are some typical disasters and threats to be considered:

  • Direct nuclear attack, nuclear fallout
  • Earthquake, Hurricane, Tornado, other high winds
  • Blizzard, Flood, Fire, Lightning
  • Ballistics, Bio-hazard


3. What measures should you take to remain viable during the most extreme situation?

You will need to determine the maximum length of disrupted operation that your center will be able to endure.  The times vary but are typically 3 days to one week without power and outside utilities.

  • Utilities – power, water, sewer, phone/data
  • Services – heating/air conditioning, data/voice backup
  • Comfort – food, sleep, rest
  • Equipment – computers, radio, peripherals, medical


4. What security measures are you comfortable with?

There are numerous methods for establishing and maintaining good security.  Recently, we have seen a rise in the use of electronic card readers over conventional keyed locks.  Another trend is to include video cameras that can be monitored internally and externally.

  • Keys, Card Readers, Retinal Scan
  • Single/external vs. Multiple/internal
  • Day/Night, Public/Private
  • Video/audio surveillance
  • Motion/intrusion detection
  • Automated/Human

5. Are there special circumstances that should be planned for?

One can only imagine the special hurdles faced in Salt Lake City for the Winter Olympics.  Do you have anything similar?  Imagine the additional pressure that would bring to your agency.  Directors are encouraged to “think out of the box” for the unusual event that may challenge resources.  We have provided extra conduits into communications rooms to facilitate adding mobile command centers and truck-mounted satellite dishes.

  • Annual Events – county fair
  • One-time events – Olympics
  • Proximity to hazards – prison, nuclear plant, chemical factory, military base


6. Does your agency have ancillary duties?

We have found that comm centers are often already part of an EOC or a fire station.  Certainly, the trend is toward independent comm  agencies and away from sworn agencies.  This often results in isolating the comm center from other ancillary duties.

  • Emergency Operations/Disaster Preparedness
  • Emergency Medical Service and Transport
  • Hazmat/Public Works/Transportation dispatch


7. What are the numbers of personnel the facility should accommodate?

This can be easy or rather difficult depending on your call volume.  For PSAPs serving growing communities one can extrapolate the current ratio of staff to population for a predicted future population.  We suggest that a special consultant be used for large centers.

  • Call Takers, Dispatchers, Supervisors
  • Director, Assistant Director, Department Heads
  • Administrative Staff
  • Techs – Data, Telephone, Radio


8. How can I benefit my staff?

Consider your current working conditions and how that affects your staff.  Our surveys indicate that the work environment impacts on stress, productivity and ultimately turnover.  The following items can make a positive difference on staff satisfaction:

  • Lighting – consider diffused over direct
  • Windows – views can be calming
  • Distribution of conditioned air – keep air fresh
  • Acoustics – reduce stress and improve communications.
  • Ergonomics – adjustable chairs, keyboards, work surfaces
  • Rest – lounge areas with exercise bikes, TV, games and food service.
  • Special Conditions – handicapped accessibility, provisions for emergencies

9. What do I expect to happen in the future?

Who has a crystal ball? All anyone can know for certain is that there will be change.  We can take some recent trends and assume that they will continue for the near future.  We can trust that there will always be a need for public safety communication and service.

Demographically, America is moving in greater numbers to the edges, along the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.  These Americans inhabit areas not accustomed to growth and overwhelm areas already taxed.  Our cities are also growing in sheer numbers if not at the same percentages as on the coastal plain.  Small counties are now faced with large burdens to provide the infrastructure and public services a growing population demand. 

Directors and operators should consider:

  • Growth of Service Rate – continues/flattens/declines
  • Growth of Service Area – co-service to neighboring areas
  • Number of Agencies Served – additional fire, police, ambulance
  • Additions – ancillary agencies (EMS, EMT, EOC)
  • Expansion – data/communications systems
  • Change – remove/replace systems

There are few building types as complex as a communication center.  The pile of issues is a large one for PSAPs to consider.  We liken it to a game of “pick up sticks,” where the movement of one stick shakes the whole pile.  At the core of the process is the comm center director with his or her hands full.  By structuring your analysis in a manner that considers these topics, we believe you’ll be armed to take your project on to the next level.

Ernest W. Olds is a Vice President/Partner with the Becker Morgan Group since 1992. He is the firm's Information Technology Director, and also leads the firm's Public Safety Market Sector.


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