Sheriff’s new dispatch center moves forward

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 10, 2014 

— Plans are underway to begin moving the Sheriff Department’s 911 dispatch center to a newly remodeled building at Castle Airport, county officials confirmed Friday.

The existing sheriff’s dispatch center at the department’s headquarters on West 22nd Street in Merced is cramped, outdated and more than two decades old, they said. The department will install a new state-of-the-art telephone system as part of the three-phase project.

“We need the new center because we’ve outgrown the space we currently have,” said Richard St. Marie, sheriff’s director of administrative services. He said call volume has grown since staff moved into the current space in 1991. “We’ve added staffing to answer these calls, and they’ve physically run out of room.”

Officials said 12 people work in the Sheriff Department’s 911 dispatch facility, usually three or four operators at a time. The space was originally an unused office and was never intended to be a dispatch center, St. Marie said. Staff frequently experience electrical problems like popping breakers, he added.

The new multi-use building at Castle includes space for the county’s emergency operations center and fire headquarters to aid in the management of the response to a countywide disaster, St. Marie said. The former Air Force base’s large runway is equipped to access resources from outside the county.

A communication breakdown following the disastrous Hurricane Katrina prompted the county’s former sheriff to spearhead the project to bring critical resources under one roof. “The dispatch center can live anywhere in the county,” St. Marie said, “but a close proximity to the emergency operations center is a huge benefit.”

The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a portion of the project’s first phase during a board meeting last month, said Mark Cowart, the county’s director of administrative services. He said equipment installation will begin in March, but the center won’t flip the switch on calls until the completion of phase one on Aug. 1.

Cowart said part of the first phase costs $497,740, which covers the purchase of radio consoles for dispatchers. The entire first phase costs $983,750, with about $432,000 coming from the state.

“It’s money we’ve been accumulating over the last several years for this purpose,” Cowart said.

The project is divided into three phases, with the first phase consisting of moving the dispatch operation and outfitting the new complex with computers, wiring and radios.

In the second phase, the old dispatch center is to be turned into a backup facility in case of emergencies. That work is scheduled for completion by Jan 1, 2015. The third phase involves installing a tower and moving the transmitters.

Funding has been identified for the first phase, but not the second or third, Cowart said. Funding for the second phase, which is close to $200,000, will be requested in the county’s 2014 budget.

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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