Hoke County emergency communications call center nears completion
RAEFORD, Jan 02, 2013 (The Fayetteville Observer - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
In January 2011, an ammonia leak at a poultry processing plant on East Central Avenue resulted in the evacuation of everyone in a half-mile radius.
That presented a problem for Jimmy Stewart, director of Hoke County's Emergency Communications, because his office and the emergency dispatch center are housed in the basement of the old National Guard Armory building -- which is across the street from the plant.
Had Stewart and staff been forced to evacuate, he said, it would have been difficult to dispatch calls to law enforcement officers and emergency services workers.
That won't be a concern after Jan. 23 when Stewart and emergency dispatchers are expected to be housed in a new communications center off East Palmer Road, behind the new Health Department.
"It's a culmination for a lot of people," Stewart said.
The 3,300-square-foot building cost about $1.1 million, Stewart said, and was funded through grants and other monies at a minimal cost to the county.
The building itself is finished, and the dispatcher's equipment is in place. There's still work to do in the back room where all of the computer servers, recording equipment, backup systems and other electronics and phone lines will be installed, Stewart said.
The building includes three spacious offices, a roomy kitchen with updated appliances and a conference room. That room, which is across from the dispatch hub, can be used for meetings and briefings in the event of major emergencies, such as hurricanes or tornadoes, Stewart said. One wall will remain empty, he said, to be used as a projector screen when needed.
The space is much-needed, Stewart said. Hoke County is the fastest growing county in North Carolina and, as the population increases, so do emergency calls, he said.
In the last year, Stewart said, dispatchers handled about 125,000 calls, some 49,000 phone calls and 70,000 dispatches to officers.
"It's pretty significant," Stewart said of the growth.
Hopefully, he said, dispatchers will be in place, ready to go live on the equipment, and operations at the new building will begin Jan. 23, he said.
It won't be soon enough for the dispatchers whose workspace is dark and cramped. There's barely room in the old armory basement, built in 1935, for the three dispatchers working each shift who monitor the communications of the Hoke County Sheriff's Office, the Raeford Police Department and the county's EMS and fire departments. The center was established in the building in 2000, Stewart said.
"Cozy" is the word he used to describe the conditions.
"If you don't like people, you can't work with us," Stewart said with a smile.
A drainpipe runs the length of a wall in the dispatch center, and there are no windows -- unless you count the ones that barely show the ground-level sidewalk outside.
Dispatcher Randi Grant has worked in the cramped quarters for eight years.
"This is all I've known, so I'm looking forward to it (moving to the new center)," she said.
The center will remain intact to be used as a backup, Stewart said.
Staff writer Nancy McCleary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 486-3568.
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