Saving lives at 9-1-1 Center commands regional cooperation

single-meta-cal April 11, 2017

This is the first story in a series covering the function and service details of the Huntsville-Madison County 9-1-1 Center.

It’s a sophisticated operation that probably would blow your perceptions away.

“It’s not the old Barney Fife days of going ’10-4′ over the radio,” says Nancy Hanvey, who oversees the emergency response team for Huntsville Fire & Rescue.

The Huntsville-Madison County 9-1-1 Center, located on Oakwood Road, houses a sophisticated command center safely ensconced 10 feet underground. Eight agencies have their communication hubs at the center, enabling cooperation between entities of the same government – such as Huntsville Police Department and Huntsville Fire & Rescue – and with other municipalities.

“I don’t think you could find a better example of governments’ successful shared services than we have at 911,” says Ernie Blair, the 9-1-1 Center CEO. “I don’t think you could go state-wide and find it done better. They’re not always natural allies, but out here, they’re a team.”

Along with the City of Huntsville entities, also located at the 9-1-1 Center are Madison County Sheriff’s Office, Madison County Fire Department, City of Madison Police Department, City of Madison Fire Department, HEMSI and the Huntsville-Madison County 9-1-1 System, through which emergency calls are initially fielded.

According to Blair, the center receives an average of 620 9-1-1 calls per day, about half of which demand immediate, emergency response. Additionally, it serves as a switchboard for agencies like Huntsville Police Department, bringing the total to more than 2,000 calls a day coming through.

“What they live for is saving the life, getting the information to catch the bad guy. They’re all great at putting the pieces together to save that life, or get the bad guy, or get a fire truck onto a scene a little quicker.”

A seven-person board of commissioners is charged with oversight of the center, and there are 28 people on Blair’s staff. One of the great challenges for his staff is constantly updating maps as areas become annexed into Huntsville or Madison, or as new subdivisions are built.

Some 200 workers a day representing all eight agencies file into the center, working around the clock. A committee of supervisors from each agency meets monthly to assure communication inside the building is as efficient as communication flowing into and out of the building.

Each department has its own work area inside the operations center, with its muted lighting and maze of cubicles. As you enter the room, in an alcove to the left is a relic. It is one of the old switchboards, kept around much the way a newspaper might display a manual typewriter on a shelf somewhere.

Huntsville Police Department has the first section in a cloverleaf of two cubicle areas, one for incoming calls, the other for dispatch. Huntsville Fire & Rescue is in the back corner. Giant TV screens hang along the walls, tuned either to news channels or the weather.

It’s surprisingly quiet. The perception that it would have the frenzy of a middle-school lunchroom is incorrect. Credit technology. The workers have lightweight headsets and those straw-thin microphones. There’s no yelling into the bulky, steel microphone from, well, the Barney Fife days.

However, there’s a little more buzz and activity this week.

It’s National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week. Now, it’s not as if Hallmark has made a card to celebrate it, and as Hanvey points out, “Nobody outside the building knows about it.”

Each day, one of the different agencies is providing lunch for everyone and various local leaders are dropping by to offer thanks and congratulations.

“Everybody out here could probably make more money doing something else,” Blair says. “But what they live for, and I’m on the fringe of that, is saving the life, getting the information to catch the bad guy. They’re all great at putting the pieces together to save that life or get the bad guy or get a fire truck onto a scene a little quicker. They’re dedicated and they’ve got a desire to make this community better.

“That’s what we’re celebrating this week, the true professionals.”