A state mandated deadline has some 911 call centers in North Carolina – those that haven’t done so already – scrambling to find a backup site that can be used in case their primary call center goes down, is destroyed by a storm or is taken off line by some other calamity. Rockingham County has now found a backup call center for its 911 operations – and that site is in Guilford County.
Many call centers across the state already had their partners lined up in response to a state law adopted two years ago that requires every 911 center to have a backup site, but Rockingham County didn’t have one.
Now that county is partnering with Guilford County and its emergency services call center and, in case of a catastrophe, Rockingham County will use the former Guilford County 911 center at 1002 Meadowood St. in Greensboro.
Guilford County stopped using the Meadowood call center as its main 911 center in 2007, though the facility has been kept operational and is still used periodically.
A new agreement between the two counties, one which is expected to be approved by the Guilford County Board of Commissioners on Thursday, July 14, will allow Rockingham County to use Guilford County’s Meadowood emergency call center facility if a disaster such as a tornado, terrorist attack or a power failure makes the current Rockingham County call center in Wentworth unusable.
A state law adopted in 2014 requires that all public agencies operating 911 centers – known as public safety answering points or “PSAPs” – have a backup location for taking 911 calls in the event the primary call center goes down. The deadline for establishing a backup was July 1, 2016 and Rockingham’s new agreement with Guilford County only missed that by a couple of weeks.
Guilford County was fortunate because, at the time law passed, it already had a backup site. The county used the Meadowood site to take 911 calls before Guilford County and the City of Greensboro merged their 911 call center operations in 2007 at the Justice Complex call center at 1201 Coliseum Dr. in Greensboro, and Meadowood has been kept operational.
Many counties and cities in the state, however, didn’t have a backup facility. In 2014, when the law passed, of 127 emergency call centers in the state only 26 had backup plans. Over the last two years, counties and cities with call centers across North Carolina have been partnering up or building their own backup centers, and the new agreement between Rockingham County and Guilford County fulfills that purpose for Rockingham’s call center. Guilford County is not getting paid for the service but county leaders do say they expect some benefits from the agreement.
Guilford County Emergency Services Director Jim Albright said this agreement should provide a working call site for Rockingham County emergency workers if a disastrous event takes down the Wentworth call center. He said that before this law was passed, in some cases, if a call center went down that was all she wrote.
“Very few 911 centers had a true hot-site backup,” Albright said.
He said local governments operating call centers had a choice of building a secondary call site or partnering with another center in their area to meet the new state requirements. Albright said the City of High Point has already signed up to use the Meadowood site as a backup as well,
“High Point said we don’t want to build a backup center,” Albright said.
According to Albright, this cooperation is a good thing because it helps the regional agencies think and work together in a “regional concept” that could be beneficial in a major disaster or other event. He said it was unlikely some occurrence would disable the call center in both Rockingham County and the two in Guilford County at the same time. However, if that happened, he said, Rockingham County officials understand their county would have to “get in line” behind Greensboro/Guilford County – and potentially High Point as well – to use the Meadowood site.
Albright said Guilford County maintains the Meadowood site and keeps it ready to go in case of an emergency. He said that the Guilford Metro 911 center staff regularly practices taking calls and dispatching emergency services from the Meadowood center to see that the equipment is kept in good working order and be certain that 911 operators and other workers are familiar with the computer systems and other equipment at the facility.
“We actually practice there and they dispatch from Meadowood about four times a year,” Albright said.
He said the technology allows for call switching from one site to the other, but added that there are a lot of moving pieces to trying to quickly relocate call dispatch services from one county to another in an emergency.
“It is not the simplest thing in the world,” Albright said.
Guilford County is entering into the agreement with Rockingham County in the interest of cooperation rather than financial gain.
“We don’t make money, but it doesn’t cost us any money,” Albright said.
Though the county isn’t getting money from Rockingham County it may get something out of the deal.
Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing said Guilford County might come out on the winning end even though Rockingham isn’t paying for the service.
“This helps us in that the state likes to see regional cooperation and that type of thing, and we may be able to get some state grant funds to upgrade our center if we need to,” the county manager said.
Lawing added that the Meadowood center is not really adequate to take over the operations of the current Guilford Metro 911 call center but the state may provide funds to help beef up the facility.
Of course, it’s possible that the county won’t see any financial benefits from the deal and will have to just be content with helping a neighboring county that finds itself in trouble. The ability to use Meadowood should save Rockingham County hundreds of thousands of dollars that that county doesn’t have to spend building a backup facility.
Greensboro city councilmembers have been asking a lot of questions lately about why city taxpayers often seem to end up paying twice for Guilford County services – since city residents pay county taxes and then pay Greensboro taxes, and, in some cases, such as animal control, the county charges the city for the service.
With this new 911 center contract, Rockingham County will get right to use Guilford County’s Meadowood center as a backup at no cost, while Greensboro taxpayers pay for the Guilford Metro 911 site as well as for maintaining the backup site at Meadowood.
Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes serves on the committee that oversees 911 calls in this area, and that reports to the Guilford County manager and the Greensboro city manager. Barnes also said it probably not going to be a problem that several agencies have the Meadowood center tagged as their backup.
“Odds are a tornado or other issue wouldn’t hit Meadowood and the 911 center in Wentworth at the same time,” the sheriff said.
Barnes also said he has a mobile command post available – a large vehicle with communication equipment. That is sort of like his Air Force One except that it can only roll instead of fly. However, like the president with Air Force One, Barnes has a great deal of access to status information from inside the mobile command unit and he has the ability to dispatch officers and conduct other operations required in an emergency.
Barnes said that in his many years in law enforcement he’s seen times when electrical issues or other calamities have caused officers to improvise greatly to continue Sheriff’s Department operations when the normal methods of communication are unusable.
He added that these days there’s a great deal of redundancy built in his critical operations and said his new buildings are constructed so that they can continue on under very bad conditions.
The new Special Operations Center that just opened on Industrial Avenue in Greensboro, for instance, is a “Category 4” building, structures designed and built to be able to withstand hurricanes and other disasters and maintain functionality in times of crisis.
Barnes said one thing that might enhance emergency operations in Guilford County is if High Point united its operations with Guilford County and Greensboro. Barnes said there are two things standing in the way: High Point uses a different radio system and they must operate in four counties rather than one. Most of High Point is in Guilford County, but smaller portions of High Point are in Davidson County, Randolph County and Forsyth County.
Also, there is the fact that High Point as a rule likes doing its own thing. He also said that Rockingham understands that High Point already has an agreement to use the Meadowood site and that takes precedence over the county’s agreement with Rockingham County.
“Now they would be third in line if there’s a major disaster,” Barnes said. Guilford Metro 911 is first and High Point would be second.
Lawing said the agreement with Rockingham is one that he hopes never comes into play.
“Hopefully, they’ll never have to use it, although I do notice they get hit hard by storms up there; at least the last three years or so that I’ve been here they have been,” Lawing said.