ROCKINGHAM — Richmond County’s Department of Emergency Services is in the process of moving to a new facility that represents a major upgrade in space and functionality.
The department’s telecommunications staff is currently housed in a converted two-car garage with a cramped break room and no windows located on South Lawrence street in downtown Rockingham. The new Richmond County Emergency Services Complex on Industrial Park Drive is outfitted with state-of-the-art technology and amenities, in addition to being more than four times larger.
The transition will be complete in the second half of the month, according to Emergency Services Director Donna Wright.
The complex will allow Emergency Services to consolidate the dispatch services for fire, rescue, EMS and law enforcement into one room so that callers don’t have to be transferred depending on the nature of their call. The move was entirely funded by a $6.3 million grant from the North Carolina 911 Board approved in 2016. It will hold nine telecommunications staff — with the ability to expand to 12 in an emergency — while the current building can only hold five.
Wright said it will take 26 total telecom staff to handle the increased call volume, and that Rockingham and Hamlet staff have been offered full-time positions.
The upgraded technology will allow telecommunicators to change radio frequencies from their computer rather than manually, and will allow better coordination between Scotland County, which upgraded to the same technology several years ago. Officers’ names will pop up on screen when they turn on their radios, helping to identify them if they need help and staff will also be able track the exact location of an officer’s vehicle to send them assistance, according to Wright.
“Right now if something were to happen to an officer, it would take a period of time for us to start searching but with the new technology we will be able to get there quicker,” said Sheriff James Clemmons. “Any time you have technology like that, that can make the lives of officers better, it’s a good thing.”
Hamlet Police Chief Scott Waters said there is nothing necessarily wrong with the current system, but said the new technology available at the complex will “strengthen us.”
“I think this technology is going to help make [our communication] more efficient,” Waters said. “Everybody’s looking forward to it.”
Wright said the biggest change for her staff will be in the “creature comforts” the new building offers that will make their jobs easier and more efficient.
The new building is 8,825 square feet, compared to roughly 2,000 square feet for the current facility, according to Wright. It features windows and a full-size kitchen — both of which Wright said her staff is particularly excited about — plus a pair of bunk beds for long nights, and an emergency operations center used for large meetings of between 20 and 30 people. The emergency operations center is about four times larger than the space the telecommunications staff currently have for their work stations.
The complex also has a “quiet room” for when staff take particularly disturbing calls and need to have a moment with themselves or to talk to a member of the critical incident stress management team.
Richmond County will be the first in the state to have its phone system hosted in an undisclosed off-site location for security and money-saving purposes — it will save residents $200,000 a year in 911 fees, according to Wright. This hosting will be on an interim basis until September when it will be “fully hosted.” Durham County will be the first in the state to be “fully hosted,” Wright said.
When a major event like a hurricane or ice storm hits Richmond County, emergency management staff stay at work until the situation is handled. During those long days, workers have to sustain themselves with a microwave, a two-burner camping stove and a crock pot. Wright said that during a particularly bad snow several years ago when the National Guard had to be called in, the staff made chili and potato soup for everyone.
The kitchen has a brand new oven and stove top, and separate refrigerators for the two shifts.
Another risk during a major weather event or emergency is a power outage. Wright said the new building is “grounded” to protect it from lightning strikes and other shock hazards, meaning that the surge would run into the ground rather than damage the equipment.
“Our current building is grounded but not as sophisticated as the new center,” she said in an email.
The land used for the new complex was donated by the city of Rockingham and allowed the department to save money on fiber costs.
“The location is simply another example of great team work between the county and the city,” Wright said in an email.
Reach Gavin Stone at 910-817-2674 or [email protected]