With a "complete overhaul" of the Prestonsburg 911 center finished, officials report the renovations will save lives, improve safety of local police and first responders and improve employee morale.
Officials at the Prestonsburg Enhanced 911 Communications Center put finishing touches on the month-long project last week. It marks the first time the center has been updated in about two decades and officials believe these upgrades will help Prestonsburg 911 move forward for decades to come.
Prestonsburg Police Sgt. Ross Shurtleff said the project more than doubled the size of the communications center and it also provided new, state-of-the-art equipment that connects dispatchers to the information they need more quickly when they are answering emergency calls.
The renovation included combining the old communications center — which featured a single console desk for all dispatchers — with an unused office and hallway space.
"It was crowded. The technology was dated, was out of date ... Basically, everybody's got their own room to work," Shurtleff said. "Before, everybody was on top of each other."
The renovation required the removal of walls, addition of raised flooring and, among other things, the replacement of the old ceiling tile. Shurtleff said officials removed about two dump truck loads of old camera system wires, phone cables and other unnecessary items that had clogged up the ceiling space for decades and hindered expansion.
"We really got into a huge project, just cleaning up old stuff," he said.
After the old wires were removed, Prestonsburg Public Works installed a new drop ceiling and contractors did the painting and installed an access floor. Shurtleff said the access floor was extended throughout the entire room so that the center can more easily grow in the future. He worked with others to run wires through that floor to connect the computer systems and equipment in the communications system, and the floor also houses battery backups for each stand-alone console system so that dispatchers aren't immediately left in the dark if the electricity goes out and the city hall generator fails.
The center operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with, typically, two certified dispatchers on staff at all times. Because of the upgrade, the center now has space to add another dispatcher.
"We're the only agency in the county that provides both 911 communications — and, of course, you've got the state police in Pikeville that's manned 24 hours a day — but, not only can we take the call, but we've got 24-hour fire, 24-hour police. So, we can handle the calls we get," Shurtleff said.
Previously, dispatchers had access to only three computers, one of which contained the phone and radio system and the other that housed the center's Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) — through which Enhanced 911 services give dispatchers the opportunity to map incoming calls and obtain information that helps them better assist police and first responders.
Because of the upgrade, dispatchers now have access to four computers, three of which that are dedicated to CAD. Shurtleff said having four monitors allows dispatchers to "seamlessly" access the information they need when they answer an emergency call.
"The technology that ran this software that we had before was the equivalent of what you would have in a nicer homer computer or a standard office computer ... We would have issues with consoles going down. They couldn't handle the workload on a busy day," Shurtleff said. "It was dated. It was old. The technology we put in now can more than handle it. We consolidated, we basically consolidated two-and-a-half computers into one, and it can handle it with ease."
He also said, "We have got a staff of dispatchers that I will put up against anybody else in the state, and we had technology that was not up to what they needed to work with to do their jobs effectively," Shurtleff said. "We now have that technology. We have technology that can keep up with the fast pace of what they're doing."
Shurtleff said the goal of the renovation was for the Prestonsburg 911 center to be able to expand.
"As far as the operations of it, the goal is to make this more — we've got an option to expand, if we want to expand. We are capable of, if any 911 center around us goes down, we can take it. We can handle it," he said.
He also said the project increases the capabilities.
"At the push of a button, at AT&T's command, they can transfer 911 trunks to or from this center," he said. "If something were to happen that the state police were to go down, we could — we're capable of handling all of Floyd County 911 now ... We're the only 911 certified Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) in the county, and we're capable now of handling Floyd County 911. So, if something were to happen to the state police, all they have to do — it's a push of a button — and Floyd County 911 comes here and we can handle it without issue."
Another added benefit to the project is a new handicap-accessible ramp and the furniture, which is geared to be more accessible to all employees.
The consoles used by the dispatchers were produced by Xybix Systems, and Shurtleff calls them "completely worker-friendly."
The desks are designed to allow dispatchers to either sit or stand and they also allow dispatchers to move their monitors into various positions.
"As a sworn police officer who started his career in dispatch, I can truly say that these guys are the first responders that aren't seen because ... you don't know what's going on out here on the road," Shurtleff said. "My radio may be silent, but they've got a fire, something is going wild on the fire side that I don't know about yet. These guys up here filter, get an ungodly amount of phone calls every day, and are the ones that decimate and tell us where we're going. We would be in the stone age without these guys. This technology is all fine and good, but if you don't have somebody sitting behind it to run it, it doesn't make a hill of beans."
Officer Randy Woods, a retired state police trooper, said the city's new dispatch room is "one of the nicest and top-of-the-line dispatches and radio rooms" he's seen across the state.
"I mean, to move forward in this area with technology the way it's booming, with information, as fast as it comes out, to be able to get the information and put it out as quickly as you can, now, it's invaluable to police and fire and EMS, without a doubt," he said. "Moving forward, you've got to try to stay ahead of the game. As quickly as things change, I think, Prestonsburg has moved way far forward with having all of this equipment now to be able to effectively serve the community."
He said it makes him feel safer when he is answering calls.
"Knowing these guys have this technology and this capability, we know we're well taken care of on this end, by far," he said.
Shurtleff encourages the public to sign up for a relatively new service offered by Prestonsburg 911, the Smart 911 program. Residents can register their cellphone through Smart 911 and text the Prestonsburg Enhanced 911 Communications Center when they need help and can't make a phone call.
He also encourages people to call 911 before they call others for help.
"I can't stress that enough. I've noticed recently ... People tend to call us last," Shurtleff said. "They want to call, if their house is getting broke into—We had a burglary a couple of weeks ago, their house was getting burglarized, and they called their husband, who was the next county over at work, who called somebody who finally called us. And then we got a call from a passerby. We should be the first phone call. Don't call your husband. Don't call your mother. We should be the first phone call because it adds time."
Dispatcher Johnny Johnson said calling others first also "diminishes the information" that dispatchers are able to receive about the emergency and provide to police, fire and emergency medical officials.
"I'm comfortable in saying that the technology is at its peak, with the Smart 911, with the Enhanced 911 all rolled into one, somebody can text whatever's going on," Shurtleff said.
Prestonsburg is the only Smart 911 center in the region.
Officials reported that the $130,000 renovation was funded mostly through a tax that is collected the state collects from telephone companies for 911 services. Prestonsburg Communications Center Supervisor Heather Conley, who oversees the fund, has been saving those funds for years to improve the center. Shurtleff said the renovation was made possible because of her fiscal management.
It was also possible, he said, because most of the work was done in house, either by the city police department, Public Works, dispatchers and others who pitched in to help.
"We have flat — I'm not patting us on the back. I'm not patting the city administration on the back — we've flat worked our butts off over the last month," Shurtleff said.
Shurtleff and Sgt. John Pack tore out the walls, as Communications Supervisor Heather Conley and dispatchers carried the drywall into dump trucks. Other employees also helped with the project.
"The only thing that have been contracted out is things that we've had to buy, like Xybix, the people who build the consoles, and, as far as actual work, it's all been done in house, either by Public Works or by the police department and communications. We've done every bit of it in house to cut costs," Shurtleff said. "It's been an experience, that's for sure."
Prior to this renovation, the center used a $130,000 Kentucky Homeland Security grant to update its radio system into a digital system that's encrypted to prevent public access — a project Shurtleff said made it safer for officers and the public. In addition to these upgrades, over the past several years, the city has been upgrading the police department's fleet.