Huntsville Fire & Rescue Chief Howard “Mac” McFarlen is in a unique position. Each day, his department employs cutting-edge technology to save lives and property, but he also remembers the old days.
When McFarlen started as a volunteer firefighter more than 40 years ago, not everyone in Madison County could call 911. In more rural areas, residents had to call a seven-digit phone number, which went directly to Huntsville Fire & Rescue. Calls for service were then dispatched to the appropriate agency.
“I still remember that number,” McFarlen said. “Things have sure changed.”
The recent ribbon-cutting on the new Huntsville-Madison County 9-1-1 Center on Old Monrovia Road in northwest Huntsville prompted McFarlen’s nostalgia. The state-of-the art facility is one befitting the Huntsville area’s meteoric 20% population growth over the past decade.
More residents means more calls for police, fire and EMS services – about 250,000 annually. That means more people are answering phones and dispatching emergency services.
On the day of the ribbon-cutting, McFarlen paid a brief visit to HFR call-takers. The dispatch room, outfitted with the latest technology and large-screen monitors, looks akin to a high-tech command center from a movie. It’s light-years ahead of the decades-old switchboard outside the door to the new dispatch center. Out of commission since 1992, the console is an enormous bank of knobs and switches that required dispatchers to manually patch calls through to agencies.
“There are probably only a couple of people who would still know how to use it,” McFarlen said with a grin.
Though McFarlen exchanged pleasantries with his department’s call-takers, the 9-1-1 center is unique because it was the first in Alabama to put dispatch operations for fire, law enforcement and EMS under one roof. At 30,000 square feet, the center is the largest in the state with more than 200 employees.
Besides HFR, the center includes communications staff for Huntsville Police, the Madison County Sheriff’s Office, Madison County Fire Department, City of Madison Police, Madison Fire & Rescue, Huntsville Emergency Medical Services (HEMSI) and the Huntsville-Madison County 9-1-1 System, which answers emergency and nonemergency calls for all public safety agencies.
“We were one of the first areas to truly have agency interoperability,” McFarlen said. “Police departments could talk to the fire department, and an ambulance could talk to the fire department. That’s probably saved the community millions of dollars.”
‘Spoke in a wheel’
Having a tech-forward center is paramount, but emergency calls are answered by human voices. Lee Gradford, chair of the Huntsville-Madison County 9-1-1 Center Board since 2006, said it’s the employees who matter most.
“They not only work during the day, but also at night, 24/7, 365 days a year,” he said. “While we are asleep, they are standing by the phone, waiting for a light to come on so they can perform their duties and provide emergency services to us.”
He described the call-takers as some of the “hardest-working people in this community.” He also thanked them for their input on the design of the new building.
“Effective public safety is at the heart of quality of life in this county,” Gradford said. “Public safety and response starts with 911.”
Madison Mayor Paul Finley echoed Gradford’s comments about quality of life and the role the center plays in it.
“Quality of life starts with your health and how safe you feel in your community,” he said. “I recognize the significance of the 9-1-1 center and what it does for us.”
At the heart of the center, though, are the ones taking the calls and dispatching the police, fire and EMS services. McFarlen said he’s known many of the center’s call-takers for decades.
“The staff are professionals, and their hearts are in it,” he said. “This building is a symbol of us working together. It’s like a spoke in a wheel.”