Boone County Officials Dedicate Emergency Center on 9/11

Boone County officials opened the new Emergency Communications Center to the public Sunday, giving tours of the 27,915-square-foot space that will house the emergency management and joint communications departments.

About 150 people, including city and county elected officials, first responders and the public, attended the grand opening on the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Southern District Commissioner Karen Miller said officials purposely scheduled the opening on the anniversary.

 “It was intentional because the very people this building will serve are the very ones who were impacted on 9/11,” she said, referring to first responders. “So we felt like it made a lot of sense to honor all the agencies with the dedication.”

Voters approved a three-eighths-cent sales tax in April 2013 to fund the building and technology upgrades to the county’s emergency communications system.

The total budget for the project was about $22 million, but the building is expected to come in under budget. The center, located near the sheriff’s department at 2145 E. County Drive, is built to withstand 250 mph winds and has two back-up generators.

The Boone County Commission selected Little Dixie Construction as the contractor in January 2015, and a groundbreaking ceremony was held in September of that year.

Joint communications, currently housed at the Columbia Police Department downtown, will increase its dispatching stations from eight to 21 with the new building, said Chad Martin, joint communications director.

The dispatching room is 2,200 square feet — three times the size of the police department space, said Joe Piper, deputy director of joint communications.

Martin said joint communications can now hire up to 49 dispatchers; 34 are currently on staff.

The emergency management department moved into the building Tuesday. No move-in date has been scheduled for dispatchers, Martin said, because of the complexity of installing new technology in the center. The county’s information technology staff is installing the new equipment and software to replace antiquated equipment first purchased in 1991.

“The benefit to” installing in-house “is our staff knows the equipment and technology from the ground up and will be less reliant from outside vendors” for maintenance, Martin said.

Aron Gish, information technology director, said his department will hire eight employees to support the technology who will work at the emergency communications center.

The county has made more than $3.3 million worth of technology purchases for joint communications this year, including a computer-aided dispatching system from SunGard Public Sector Inc. at $803,220.

 The system handles incoming calls and disperses information to police, fire and emergency medical agencies. It also allows dispatchers to see where first responders are in the field by tracking their vehicles. The equipment will allow residents to text to 911 in the future.

Once equipment is installed, the county will switch from its old 911 system to the new one. The switch could be simultaneous, meaning both systems will run until the new one is self-sufficient, or joint communications could use the old system as a backup for calls the new system misses. Martin said the county still needs to decide which option it prefers.

The building also features an emergency operations room, a large space where officials can collaborate during disasters. During emergency events, they will work from four V-shaped tables designated for operations, logistics, planning and administration, said Terry Cassil, emergency management director.

Several rooms designed for officials to break out into smaller groups adjoin the emergency operations room.

Ron Walker, director of the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency, said the only emergency communications center that houses both emergency management and joint communications is in Greene County.

With both under one roof, Cassil said, emergency management officials will have more efficient and accurate communication and a better tactical response to crises.

The new emergency communications center is spacious enough to host meetings for Boone County and Central Missouri officials, Cassil said. Emergency management is scheduled to host meetings in the building for SEMA Region F later this month.