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York County 9-1-1 Center Built for Speed

HANOVER, Pa. -- The lobby of the new emergency services center in Springettsbury Township is a shell of concrete and glass. But the room s natural light makes the building a stark opposite of the previous one, a nearby structure in the Pleasant Acres complex that s described as a cave by Rob Sterner, the new center s project manager.

Look through the glass windows and there s a small outdoor plaza bearing the names of police officers and firefighters who have died in the line of duty. County emergency officials want to streamline their response operation, and built a facility with the first responders safety in mind.

That focus on safety is evident just from the lobby. Turn toward the entrance doors and there s an imposing concrete wall, one that extends out of the building and wraps around the complex s innards.

Security and technology are the top priorities. The finishing touch is a calming atmosphere for what can be a hair-pulling job.

It s pretty nice, said dispatcher Jeremy Sparks. Even the smallest details make a big difference.

County dispatchers began taking calls from the 52,000-square-feet complex last week, completing a relocation that brings the county s emergency operations and 911 workers under one roof.

Dispatchers faced their first major test from the start, when nearly six inches of snow riled drivers Dec. 5. More than 150 wrecks were reported by that afternoon. There were no major problems with the transition, Sterner said.

It was a very busy day, he said. But I think we answered that challenge.

Through Thursday afternoon, he said, the center had processed 1,100 calls.

The building is part of a $68 million overhaul of the county s emergency management operation. The new building and a backup facility in West Manchester Township make up less than a quarter of the project s total budget: about $15 million.

The bulk of the $68 million will be spent on new computers and radios for dispatchers, police officers and emergency crews. Already in place is a computer system that allows 911 dispatchers to send units without having to report the call by manually writing it on a card.

Sterner said the old Pleasant Acres building could not handle the new high-tech equipment needed in a post-Sept. 11 climate.

Several rooms in the new center feature a white board that can track pen strokes and capture them digitally, making it easy to print, archive and save the information.

The hazardous materials response staff, 911 workers and emergency management crew are now huddled together in one location, so there should be no lag in communication.

There are also new radio towers to support the county s switch to a digital radio system, which would allow emergency service workers to communicate without interference.

New towers have been built throughout the county, and testing will begin soon, Sterner said. The system should be fully operational sometime next year.

Jeremy Maugans, emergency medical services chief in Fairview Township, said the existing towers offered only one radio frequency for ambulances. As a result, he said, calls in York County sometimes competed with calls in Cumberland County.

They would cancel each other out or just go over each other, he said.

If the 2-foot-thick anti-ram wall at the building s front wasn t enough protection, the lobby s front desk and myriad offices and cubicles shield the core of the building: the dispatch area, equipment rooms and the emergency operations center. Employees park in a secured lot in the rear of the complex and enter through 1-inch-thick blast-proof doors.

There s plenty of surveillance, and there s plenty of space. The building offers a workplace that has high ceilings and abundant light for 911 workers, surveyors and support staff.

The 911 section is twice the size of the one in the Pleasant Acres site. There are multiple monitors per work station and chairs that can be easily adjusted. Sound-soaking panels keep the acoustics under control. When dispatchers need to take a break from the job, they can retreat to a dining area to spread out and relax.

It s common for them to eat at their desks, Sterner said. We want them to get away from their desks and unwind.

The 911 center can communicate easily with the emergency management war room -- only a conference room separates the two.

There might not have been many glitches with the 911 calls, but the new radio system still needs to be tested, Sterner said.

Maugans said he heard there was some trouble with calls getting dispatched Wednesday, but he acknowledged that s to be expected with anything new.

It s a new system that will take time to work out the bugs, Maugans said. But it s better than what we have already.

AT A GLANCE:

Total project cost: $68 million

Cost of new building and backup facility in West Manchester Township: about $15 million

Size of complex: about 52,000 square feet

* Main facility: 36,000 square feet

* Garage/hazardous material response team headquarters: 16,000 square feet

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