by KATE SHUNNEY
The Morgan County Commission has started laying the groundwork for a long-awaited move for the county’s 911 center to a new home, with upgrades to new equipment.
During the April 4 commission meeting, officials said the current 911 center will be moved from its double-wide trailer near The Pines into the refurbished former hospital next door.
The emergency communications center will occupy the old operating room at the old War Memorial Hospital.
County facilities director Vince Cichocki told the commissioners he is working with Design Concepts, an architectural firm from Winchester, to design the 911 center as part of the renovations at The Pines.
Cichocki said Design Concepts recommended the county work with a mechanical, electrical and plumbing firm from Morgantown that has specific expertise in 911 centers.
He said that experience will be important in designing the layout of the center and coordinating with equipment vendors who will install radio, telephone and internet services to the 911 office.
911 Director Zachary Caldwell told county officials they are facing a major project, bigger than building a new space for dispatchers.
“Don’t just think we’re buying a new 911 center. There are pieces that need to be put together like a puzzle,” Caldwell said. “I, myself, have never put together CAD, radio and telephone systems and moved a 911 center all at once.”
Caldwell suggested county officials look at bringing in a consultant to plan the upgrades and move.
“I think we owe it to the people who are paying for it,” Caldwell said.
He said the equipment upgrades alone for computer-aided dispatch, telephone and radio services will cost close to $850,000 by early estimates. The current phone system has no backup and the 911 computer system isn’t supported by the manufacturer any longer, said Caldwell.
“I would prefer a professional consultant,” said Commissioner Bob Ford. He said there needs to be a point person who can coordinate equipment needs, the design of the center and ensure all the systems work together.
“If we’re going to spend $1 million on 911 equipment, somebody needs to be accountable,” Ford said.
Caldwell said accountability for each vendor is included in contracts when the county buys equipment.
“All these vendors are willing to work together,” he said.
“That’s doesn’t mean it’s going to work,” Ford said. He said he didn’t want vendors to get into a “pissing match of blame” if 911 systems don’t work as they should.
“I’ve been down this path before. We need to rely on professional people to do the design,” said Ford. “I’m not so much worried about the cost of the system, but if the system works the way it’s supposed to.”
Commission President Joel Tuttle asked Caldwell if he planned to hire a general contractor or point person for the 911 center upgrades.
“I think it’s a good idea,” said Caldwell. He said neither he nor the 911 Advisory Board have the expertise to oversee such a major overhaul.
“The systems need to be explained to us to make sure it’s right for our county, because there’s a lot of things we want this system to do in the future,” said Ford.
Caldwell agreed, saying upgrades should allow users to text to 911, provide terminals for law enforcement use and give remote access to first responders to look up incident records.
Tuttle asked Caldwell to come back to the commission with recommendations for consultants to oversee the upgrades.
“We pay you to be our 911 director, not to design this system,” Tuttle said.
He said the next part of the conversation will be how to pay for the project.
Tuttle said the commission has to consider raising the 911 fee on landlines in the county. The $1.50 monthly fee on landline phone bills hasn’t gone up since 1998.
Caldwell said there are roughly 6,900 households in Morgan County paying that monthly fee.
County officials would have to hold public hearings in order to change the 911 fee amount, which is set by ordinance.
Tuttle said commissioners would discuss that move at their April 18 meeting.