New County 911 Center on Track for March Opening

By Beacon Staff

After a $6.9 million county-approved bond and years of work, the new Flathead County Dispatch and Emergency Operations Center is in the final construction stages, with regular staffing expected by March 15.

Seeing the building for the first time, 911 Board member and Columbia Falls City Councilor Michael Shepard said the center is “unbelievable” even though he helped design it.

“It’s no Taj Mahal,” Shepard said. “It’s a very functional building.”

The new, 11,800-square-foot building is on the cutting edge of technology and will end up costing close to $6.1 million, said Flathead County Office of Emergency Services Director Mark Peck during a walk-through last week. Among the many characteristics of the building, one of the biggest system improvements is the constant information sharing between every entity in the building.

The rooms are wired with the latest Internet and smart grid systems from Bluestone Cinema Systems, allowing seamless communication between the dispatchers and public safety officials in a manner akin to the brain and the nervous system.

This was sorely lacking in the previous arrangement, Peck said, noting that the idea for a new 911 center came after a particularly bad windstorm in 2007. The dispatchers were receiving hundreds of calls every hour as officials tried to piece together a clear picture of what was happening. Information was delayed in the confusion, he remembered, and that’s when it was decided to pursue a new system.

The new 911 center has back up systems for power, Internet connectivity and the numerous servers. And those back ups have back ups, Peck said. Part of creating a countywide consolidated emergency operations center is making it disaster proof, and Peck is certain the latest design will be as close to that as possible.

“It’s going to take a really bad day to put us out of business,” Peck said.

Starting with a clean slate and a list of needs, the center has been thought and rethought to the very last detail, including using whiteboard paint in the emergency command center so employees can write on the walls.

To keep insurance costs down, the 911 center is equipped with a radiant heat system, which transfers excess heat in the building to sources under the sidewalks. This will prevent slipping, Peck said. The radiant heat also runs through the whole building, making it extra efficient.

The center will also act as an information back up for the city governments in the Flathead, so if a disaster occurs at any of the city halls, a specialized trailer built by Nomad Technologies can be dispatched and serve as city hall for a couple months. This trailer is also one of the center’s back ups in case the building is cut off from the county, and will be sheltered at a different location.

There is also room for expansion, with non-load bearing walls and extra space on the grounds to accommodate more personnel.

“We can handle a huge population growth,” Peck said.

Whitefish dispatchers will be the first to transition, Peck said, but it will be challenge to maintain emergency services while moving everyone around. The dispatchers from other cities will eventually phase into the center. The county is also in the process of hiring a new OES director to replace Peck, who said he is looking for a professional transition and finishing the center seemed like the right time.

It hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing for the center. The latest contention came in the form of a protest letter over a bid for a communications equipment award. The Flathead County commissioners recently signed a contract with Colorado-based Positron Public Safety to process 911 calls so the dispatchers can get addresses and other information.

Local company CenturyLink also bid for the job and sent a letter of protest about the decision to go with Positron on Jan. 18. In the letter, CenturyLink account manager and Emergency Number Professional Lisa Kelly asserts that taxpayer money should be kept in the valley instead of sending it to an out-of-state company. Kelly also insists that CenturyLink’s bid was the lowest, despite what the proposal comparison summary said.

At the 911 Board meeting on Feb. 10, Kelly and several other CenturyLink employees asked the board to reconsider the Positron choice. Many of the speakers extolled the benefits of keeping money in the Flathead as well as the company’s longevity in the valley.

Kelly said in her presentation that mistakes had been made during the evaluation and that the process did not seem to be objective.

The board, however, refused to reverse their decision despite expressing empathy for local businesses.

“The ultimate answer is the bid we accepted looks to be the best thing,” said board member and Whitefish City Councilor Turner Askew. “I believe we made the right decision.”

According to the bid sheet, Positron’s total bid, including four years of maintenance and optional services, came it at $622,504. CenturyLink bid $687,851. The board decided that in the end it came down to price and that they could not legally give local companies special consideration.

CenturyLink still has a contract with the county for other phone services, Peck said.

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