By working together and establishing the Dakota Communications Center, the Dakota County city and county governments were able to realize enhanced services and reduced costs.
Consolidation of government services is receiving considerable attention during the current times of economic challenge. Nationwide, public safety agencies are being asked to find cuts in their budgets. Public safety answering points (PSAPs) are often identified as a prime area for consolidation and a cost saving measure. Public safety is typically the largest component of most city budgets. The share of those budgets related to operating a PSAP are significant, both in terms of staffing and capital investment. While the state shares some of the burden, local government pays most of the cost of 9-1-1 equipment, developing local databases and employing dispatchers. The chance to significantly reduce cost by sharing service with others makes this a high potential project. Further, history shows that cities have been willing to consider joint dispatching, especially when equipment updates are needed.
As public safety and government leaders, it is crucial to understand the potential risks and rewards for agency and community when PSAP consolidation is considered. Using the Dakota Communications Center’s recent experience in the consolidation of five PSAPs serving 400,000 residents and 25 public safety agencies into a single operation, this article will review governance, major elements of consolidation and background in planning and design of the new PSAP/9-1-1 center.
Dakota County 9-1-1 Center
In December of 2007, a state-of-the-art building in Empire Township, MN became the host for all 9-1-1 answering and public safety dispatch operations in Dakota County, following the consolidation of five 9-1-1 centers. These functions were moved to the Dakota Communication Center (DCC) from their previous homes in the Apple Valley, Burnsville, Eagan and Lakeville Police Departments as well as the Dakota County Sheriff’s Department. The new center dispatched more than 330,000 calls for service in 2008 to its 25 law enforcement, fire and emergency medical agencies.
The DCC was created in late 2005 by 11 Dakota County cities and the County to build and operate a consolidated PSAP. Dakota County is part of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, lying just south of both downtown areas. With a population of 400,000 residents, Dakota County is Minnesota’s third most populous county and is adding approximately 5,000 residents per year. The county is primarily suburban but also contains significant rural area.
The DCC is a government Joint Powers Entity, funded and governed by its member agencies. A Board of Directors comprised of an elected official from each member entity approves the annual budget, which is then assessed to the members through a funding formula based on calls for service. The Board is also responsible for hiring an Executive Director, who is in turn responsible for the overall management of the organization.
In addition to the Board of Directors, the DCC has an Executive Committee of Member Jurisdiction Chief Administrators, who oversee operations and an Operations Committee comprised of law enforcement, fire and emergency medical agency members who provide user input to staff on operational issues.
Including the Executive Director, the DCC has 64 full-time employees on staff consisting of 52 dispatchers, six shift supervisors, a training coordinator, two IT technical support specialists, an Operations Director and two administrative staff. Fiscal, legal and some Human Resources functions are outsourced through service contracts. All dispatchers in the existing five centers were offered employment at the DCC, which began on January 1, 2007. More than 95 percent of the 62 dispatch and supervisory personnel accepted the DCC employment offer and transitioned to our staff, remaining at the existing centers until cutover to the DCC.
The DCC facility is a 25,000 square foot building hardened against weather and other threats. Twenty-three work stations are connected by more than six miles of cable under the dispatch floor for computer-aided dispatch (CAD), 9-1-1 telephone, 800 MHz radio consoles and facility security systems. A sophisticated fire sensing and suppression system provides protection above and below the dispatch and data room floors. An onsite backup facility is located within the center’s evacuation area which is designed to withstand 300 MPH winds.
Facility planning included the establishment of a 72-hour sustainability capability to include an exercise area, full service kitchen, lockers and showers. An advanced air handling system allows for a total shut-off of outside air for extended periods. Redundant UPS systems and a large generator will provide electrical service with no loss of functionality in the event commercial power is interrupted. The construction cost of the facility was $7.8 million, with an additional $6.4 million spent to equip the facility with the equipment and technology required for PSAP operations.
The DCC CAD system is provided by LOGIS (Local Government Information Systems) (Golden Valley, MN)—another consortium at a remote site, further enhancing our resilience in the face of network connectivity issues.
The opening of the DCC facility coincided with the migration of all Dakota County public safety agencies to the MinnesotaMetro ARMER 800 MHz radio system. More than 1,900 subscriber radios are operational on the system. The Dakota County 800 MHz subsystem was constructed by Dakota County with partial funding through homeland security grants. Cost recovery for ongoing operations is achieved with per/ radio charges to the participating agencies. In addition to the grant availability to construct the system, Dakota County agencies were also facing the long term need to replace their existing VHF conventional systems as a result of the FCC’s decision to move all public safety VHF systems to narrowband technology by 2013. This regulatory obsolescence helped the member agencies establish a common planning horizon for a new system.
The design process started in January 2006 with construction beginning in June and was completed in August 2007. Dakota County led the project through their Capital Planning and Programming Department. A core group of stakeholders gave input to design with Wold Architects and Engineers (St. Paul, MN). Input was solicited from all dispatchers, city and county police chiefs and sheriffs as well as city mayors and administrators. The final recommendation and decision making body was with a joint city-county design advisory committee.
Wold provided planning, programming and complete design services which included critical analysis of the hallmarks of effective next-generation communication center design. The following were carefully investigated, analyzed and concluded through option analysis:
- Shaping mission-critical design “essential services standards” including NFPA, FEMA and IBC
- Critical operational adjacencies
- High-performing, human factors positive and ergonomic environments.
- Natural light and general lighting focus and control
- Mechanical ventilation provided from floor with user controls
- Uninterrupted services though hardened and redundant structure and building systems
- Adaptable and flexible infrastructure
- Radio, CAD/RMS, 9-1-1 and IT equipment room—“stand-alone capabilities”
- According to Dakota County’s construction standards and according to sustainable guidelines
Creating effective next generation 9-1-1 facilities for the new DCC facility required design responses for each objective. Working with the Dakota County Capital Planning and Programming Department, Wold created a matrix to analyze levels of hardening, redundancy and survivability in comparison to costs. Often the best solutions were those that addressed and solved many issues at once.
An important visualization tool was the use of computer visualization imaging. Images of important spaces such as the dispatch room allowed the DCC client to help determine spatial characteristics, day lighting and materials. “Hands on” design sessions with the DCC also allowed these topics to be modeled inside and out reducing the guesswork and confirming with great certainty the 3D effect of decision making.
Through diligent project management, 3D visualization, user participation and effective client decision making, the DCC project was completed on time within budget and with highly successful outcomes.
Service enhancements include a new county-wide VHF fire alerting system, county-wide emergency medical dispatch, much improved interoperability between agencies, improved management of surge activity, dedicated fire dispatch and improved data sharing between agencies to name a few. Recent enhancements include automatic vehicle location and a high-speed outbound telephone notification system. Economic and operational efficiencies were a strong motivation behind the establishment of the DCC. By working together, Dakota County city and county governments were able to realize enhanced services and reduced costs. By implementing 800 MHz technology into one center vs. five, $3.8 million in capital costs were avoided. In the first three years of operations an estimated operational savings of $2.4 million was predicted with the first full year of operation saving approximately $1,100,000. ENPM
As published in Emergency Number Professional Magazine here.