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The Dispatcher's Role in Designing A New Dispatch Facility
Author: Richard Behr
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
Building Your Comm Center – Part 1
Originally Published in our Jan/Feb 2003 issue.
The face of law enforcement and firefighting has changed dramatically over the past decade. Technology has grown tremendously with the advent of GPS, CAD systems, sophisticated radio systems, police procedures, firefighting equipment, and the like. The only thing that seems to have difficulty adjusting, is the buildings we work in. Many were built decades ago with little or no thought given to expansion and growth, let alone safety features for earthquakes, tornadoes, mudslides and other acts of nature.
In 1994, the Northridge (CA) earthquake caused major damage to the Los Angeles basin. The campus of Cal-State Northridge suffered extensive damage in which 59 buildings were damaged, including the police facility. According to Desiree Bumgarner, the dispatch supervisor, the doorframes of the Comm Center buckled and doors could not be opened. Evacuation was accomplished through a sliding glass door. The computer monitors in dispatch came crashing down, bookcases toppled and the equipment in the telephone room also came down. Five years later, the campus is still rebuilding the damage that was done.
With the knowledge of what happened at Cal State Northridge, the University of California Police Department, Riverside set out to replace their existing police building. The original building had not been built with the intent of housing a police department. In fact, the building was an existing structure when the University purchased the property in 1948. It had served many purposes over the years, including a tack barn. The police department was moved to the structure in the 1970’s.
One of the first moves was to procure funding for the project, which was handled by the University. The second objective was to form a steering committee of department employees to spearhead the project. Volunteers from administration, patrol and communications were selected to serve on the committee. Selection of an architect was the next step. Several firms were solicited for bids with the selection going to Taylor and Associates Architects of Newport Beach (CA).
Meetings were arranged with the committee to start discussing ideas for the new facility. Architects from the firm went on ride-a- longs with patrol officers to get their ideas and perspectives. They met with and did sit-a-longs with on duty dispatchers to get a feel for the job and the work environment, the type of equipment that was being used (i.e.; consoles, lighting, chairs, etc.), and solicit input regarding what the dispatchers wanted in a communications center. The committee and Taylor and Associates Architects even traveled to various police departments throughout California to view architectural designs, floor plans, internal traffic flow patterns, amenities and conduct interviews with personnel about their likes and dislikes of particular features.
“…(architects) met with and did sit-alongs with on duty dispatchers to get a feel for the job…”
Once funding was obtained for the project, the committee met regularly with the architect’s project manager, Doug Ely, to incorporate ideas from other agencies as well as UCRPD’s own needs. Plans were drawn, redrawn, hashed, dashed & smashed and redrawn again. A viable design was finally developed and the project went out to bid. Bidders walked the site for the proposed building and viewed the plans. When the bids were opened, all the bids were over budget. The committee had to re-evaluate the plans and start value engineering out some of the proposed amenities. After the re-evaluation and plan modifications, a second bid went out and was awarded.
Prior to the value engineering process, two things were taken away from communications; a wall that separated the communications break room from the center itself, and an outside door to an enclosed patio off the break room. The issue of the wall and break room in the final construction, became a moot point, as the size of the break room was such that a wall would have made the break room seem smaller. The door to the outside and communications patio was eliminated due to monetary constraints and feasibility. Although the patio would have been a great amenity, the cost factor made it prohibitive. Communications was not the only place that had amenities value engineered. Patrol had to give up the exercise room and spa. However, the building was designed for future expansion and if monies exist in the future, an exercise room and communications patio may be added.
Dispatchers had an integral part in not only the design of their work environment, but also had the opportunity for input about other areas of the building. Overall interior color schemes, tile and carpet selection, outside roof color and building accent colors, types of lockers and the interior courtyard to name a few.
The facility is shaped somewhat like a box with sloping, gable roofs and an open interior courtyard. The courtyard was designed, funded and built by members of the department. Originally, the University didn’t want to fund a courtyard and wanted it removed from the plans. The Chief of Police, however, decided that he wanted a place for his officers, dispatcher’s and other civilian staff to go to relax, de-stress, and take a break without any outside interference. Due to the Chief’s persistence, the courtyard stayed, however, there was no funding available for the courtyard. The courtyard now boasts a decorative, concrete patio, lush vegetation in the Japanese garden style, wrought iron chairs & tables with umbrellas, park bench, and even a bamboo water fountain and pagoda. Most every office, including communications, has a window that looks out into the courtyard.
In the communications center, the consoles are secured directly to the computer floor, which is covered with seamless carpet tiles. The window looking out to the courtyard is not the only window in the room, as there are windows on an opposing wall, approximately 6 feet off the floor. These windows, even though they are frosted, allow for natural light to enter. The purpose for the height and window frosting are for security reasons.
One common complaint voiced by dispatchers in communication centers, other than lack of windows, concerns lighting. In UCRPD’s building, canned lighting was installed directly above the consoles, eliminating glare on the CAD and other computer screens. In addition, a square lighting grid, suspended from the ceiling, provides soft lighting. The grid has fluorescent lights that shine upwards for indirect lighting, and additional lights that shine down for more direct lighting. Both the recessed lights and the lighting grid are on dimmers, which provide an infinite variety of lighting available for the dispatchers. Communications also has its own dedicated air conditioning unit with the thermostat located in the center. That way, no one else but the dispatchers has control over their comfort zone.
“…including dispatchers in the planning process, it was shown that their input was valued and respected by the department.”
As a safety feature, it was decided early on that there shouldn’t be any bookcases along the walls. This presented a major concern if an earthquake occurred, to have them topple over and cause injury to those on duty. How did we come up with an alternative? The Training Sergeant and one of the Communications Training Officers built a large 36-inch high rotating bookshelf with 3 tiers. This proved adequate to hold all reference books and forms, as well as providing an additional worktop area.
Another safety feature of the building, was to design it as an essential services building with steel girders and supports in the walls instead of wood. This added to the earthquake soundness of the structure in the event of the “big one.” The dispatchers have to handle the front counter traffic, so the wall dividing the Comm Center and the front counter, had steel plating installed as bulletproofing. Original plans called for bulletproof glass at the front counter, however, that proved too costly.
The dispatchers purchased and provided some decorative items for the room. Artificial trees were brought in and clear twinkle lights were added to help bring the theme of the courtyard into dispatch. Spotlights were placed behind the trees to give them an additional soothing appearance. Dispatchers also brought in new dishes, silverware, glasses and cups to add their own personal touch, as well as a new stereo system. And to top off creature comforts, the department purchased new, plush and comfortable dispatch chairs. And perhaps one of the most important dispatcher comforts…a Communications bathroom. No more will officers have to give the dispatchers a restroom break or will dispatchers have to run to the other side of the building with an HT in hand and chant “Please don’t ring, please don’t ring.”
The only problem encountered in the Communications Center during the construction concerned the carpet tiles in dispatch. The original vendor stated that the tiles would not come up or loose with the type of traffic that was to be encountered in communications. However, the carpet tiles did separate at the seams and become loose. This was before any equipment was even moved in. The department had the tiles replaced and upgraded at additional expense paid for by the University. The carpet is a different color than the rest of the building, however, it matches the deep blue of the console countertops and gives the room a distinction all it’s own.
By including dispatchers in the planning process, it was shown that their input was valued and respected by the department. After all, it was the dispatchers who had to work in the center they designed. The architects, the building committee and the dispatchers themselves, designed the Comm Center for the safety and comfort of… “the dispatcher.”
Richard Behr has been in public safety more than 40 years. He was a dispatcher for the University of California Police Department in Riverside, CA for 7 years, and most recently has been a dispatcher for the San Bernardino (CA) City Fire Department. A long time senior instructor for Public Safety Training Consultants, Richard is the author of the acclaimed book, Under the Headset: Surviving Dispatcher Stress.