Photo of: Rochelle Valverde
While many people in Douglas County transitioned to remote work early in the coronavirus pandemic, Douglas County Emergency Communications stayed put.
The department’s director, Tony Foster, said there was no choice. The department handles 911 dispatch services for the entire county minus the University of Kansas from the Emergency Communication Center at the Douglas County Judicial and Law Enforcement Center in downtown Lawrence. Without dispatchers at the center, it would have been impossible to direct the first responders – and the consequences would have been dire.
“We need to provide that service,” Foster told Journal-World earlier this week. “If we don’t offer this service, people will die.”
Douglas County executives made their final decisions last month on where to direct funding for the county’s American Rescue Plan Act, and a significant portion has been devoted to ensuring that emergency communications remain operational for years to come. Of the approximately $7 million allocated to internal district departments, Emergency Communications received $920,599 for three projects.
In addition to providing 911 telephone service, the department provides radio distribution personnel and equipment for the 23 law enforcement, fire and emergency medical services that serve Douglas County’s cities, towns and rural areas.
“They always say we’re the first responders,” Foster said. “Without us there is no police, no ambulance, no fire engine – 911, we do that. We are the hub or what they call the ‘air traffic controller’ for all emergency relief in the county.”
A request of $240,992 will help update and reconfigure the emergency communications center, which dispatchers work around the clock to operate with a focus on keeping workers healthy. Foster said this would be done by purchasing emergency antimicrobial panels that are not affected by frequent cleanings.
The pandemic prompted the department to clean even harder than before as it needed to avoid a spate of positive coronavirus cases among dispatchers to keep operations running. However, Foster said cleaning products like bleach are harsh on the older consoles that used them.
“We clean our consoles every day, twice a day, every shift,” Foster said. “We work 12-hour shifts. So if you use these types of chemicals on these types of surfaces for so long, they tend to destroy those surfaces.”
This work did not stop even during the peak of the pandemic. Foster said working from home just wasn’t an option, so the department continued to come to work as usual. Concerns about being able to continue that work even extended to employees’ personal lives, Foster said; The dispatchers knew they couldn’t afford to waste time.
The other two projects are tied to the department’s radio network, and these split the remaining ARPA funds almost equally. One of them will replace an aging microwave system that Foster says was essential to the operation of the public safety radio network. In short, he said the network connects five sites that effectively “act as one.” So when a sheriff’s deputy speaks at one location, a medical first responder on the other side of the county can hear that message at exactly the same time.
Microwave radios help transmit that data from tower to tower, allowing for this simultaneous transmission, Foster said. The upgrade keeps that connection ring functional and also keeps it connected to a larger statewide network operated by the state of Kansas.
“Without them, and if those went down, there would be system outages across the area,” Foster said. “And we might have situations where we might think you’re receiving radio traffic and you’re not receiving radio traffic. That is a very important aspect of this network.”
The third project will replace 70 cellular radios in the vehicles of Douglas County Sheriff’s Office deputies. Current radios are obsolete and three years past the end of their useful life, which means the manufacturer – Motorola – is no longer servicing them.
All three projects target technologies that are nearing or past the end of their useful lives, Foster said. For example, the Emergency Communication Center was last upgraded in 2014, and the average lifespan of replaced consoles is seven to 12 years. The microwave system was also installed in 2014 and had started to deteriorate due to its age.
“Everything we did was upgrade or replace aging or existing parts that we already have but something we needed and had to happen,” Foster said. “Either we take this opportunity to do it now and update it, or we probably pay for it within the next year or so through other funding mechanisms anyway.”
Completing all of these projects at once would not have been possible in a year without pandemic aid, Foster said. The sheriff’s radio replacement project, for example, had been in the works for about three years and would have taken another two or three years without ARPA funding. The other projects are similar; Without the aid money, there wouldn’t be a console swap for the next four or five years, Foster said.
The influx of ARPA funds has given Emergency Communications a few opportunities as far as other projects the department can afford. For one, Foster said, it has enabled purchases of equipment that allow internet and satellite connectivity at the department’s mobile dispatch center. If there is ever another event like the EF-4 tornado that struck Douglas County in May 2019, it will help the center function normally no matter how the wireless network infrastructure is affected.
Foster said the department will also look to purchase new software packages later this year and next that will provide better visibility into regional emergency situations.
“That’s a significant amount of money for our agency,” Foster said. “To be able to do all of this in a year, that’s five to seven years of funding mechanisms, which frankly means five to seven years of stagnant activity within the center when it comes to technology upgrades. In our field the technology is changing so fast and so fast in two to three years. Things we can bring to the citizens of the county—not just our county, but other counties as well. It’s exciting to look to the future and see where we’re going and what we can make of it.”