In a sense, 911 dispatchers are the first first-responders. They are the initial point of contact during an emergency, and they must make decisions and take actions to ensure that police, fire and paramedics get the right information to respond correctly.
Each month, Ada County 911 Public Safety Communications Center takes an average of 10,000 emergency calls and 28,000 nonemergency calls. The 911 center dispatches for more than a dozen agencies including the Sheriff's Office and Boise, Meridian and Garden City police departments, six fire districts, paramedics and, at times, state and federal firefighting agencies.
Since 1977, the Ada County dispatch center has been housed in the basement at the Ada County Public Safety building on Barrister Drive. As the county has grown and technology advanced, the center has had to add more dispatchers and more equipment.
Today, the 1,500-square-foot room is packed with 14 dispatch slots. If the Sheriff's Office wanted to add a 15th slot, it couldn't.
"The floor is now at its limit," said Stephen O'Meara, emergency communications manager. "There is no space to grow additional call takers."
The facility's power, standby power and computer-heat management also are reaching capacity.
Advanced technology takes more computers, servers and other equipment.
"All of that takes electricity and power consumption creates heat" that has to be cooled to protect the equipment, O'Meara said.
"We've done the best we can with our current center for as long as we can," said Ada County Sheriff Gary Raney. But the county needs a "modern" dispatch center that can, for example, accept text messages and video.
"For a growing number of our citizens, texting is the same thing as calling. We must adapt," Raney said. "The current center simply can't do that."
The Sheriff's Office considered retrofitting the 37-year-old building, but bringing it up to code would be costly and still wouldn't give the county the necessary space and infrastructure it needs, said O'Meara. Even to replace the aging backup generator, he said, would require costly code upgrades.
The best solution is to build a new center, O'Meara said. The Sheriff's Office is working with the commissioners on a plan to build a 25,000- to 30,000-square-foot dispatch center on county-owned land in Meridian. A paramedic station and Weed, Pest and Mosquito Abatement facility already are housed on the 11-acre complex at Pine Avenue and Locust Grove Road.
"If we've got a well-built, purpose-designed center with a lot of good cooling, a lot of power headroom and a lot of standby power for backup, we are looking at something that would be beneficial to everyone in the county," O'Meara said.
State 911 fees - $1 per month per wired or wireless phone - can be used for equipment only, not construction or buildings. The county will use property tax dollars to pay for the project, which will be completed in phases over the three next years.
On Thursday, the county commissioners will consider setting the 2015 budget, with $4.1 million for the first phase of replacing the dispatch center.
"We've gotten as much as possible out of it. Even with the equipment we have now, the infrastructure is maximized and could potentially fail from an overload," Raney said. "Outdated equipment is always at risk of failing. The idea that you could call 911 and have no one answer because of equipment failure that we could have predicted and prevented is simply not acceptable."
Cynthia Sewell: 377-6428, Twitter: @CynthiaSewell