E-911 Center tops Houston’s public safety SPLOST list

chwright@macon.comJanuary 24, 2012 

WARNER ROBINS -- Twelve cubicles are hugged together in a large room just off Carl Vinson Parkway. Each is labeled with a gold nameplate of a public safety agency and houses an operator calmly fielding several emergency dispatches before a collage of computer screens.

It’s the Houston County E-911 Center, and it has an imminent need for upgrades in that room and corresponding systems in emergency vehicles throughout the county and its three cities, commander Capt. Ricky Harlowe said.

“Through these doors pass the World’s Greatest communications officers,” reads a sign above the entrance. Harlowe said those officers relay 600 to 800 calls daily to Centerville, Perry, Warner Robins and Houston County police, fire and other emergency personnel.

The E-911 Center is set to receive about $8.2 million if voters approve a sales tax renewal this year. Corresponding equipment for police agencies throughout the county would cost about $800,000, for a total of about $9 million for the county’s emergency communications system.

It’s the second most-costly project on the countywide list, which includes initiatives that will affect the three cities and all of Houston County. At $19 million, land acquisition and infrastructure improvements for industrial development is the most expensive countywide project.

The Houston County commissioners have estimated a continuation of the special purpose local option sales tax would generate about $155 million over six years. Residents will cast votes March 6 on the penny sales tax.

If the referendum passes, about $60.3 million is earmarked for countywide projects, including $7 million to address encroachment north of Robins Air Force Base.

Harlowe said it’s imperative the E-911 Center receive funding soon. The 800 MHz emergency radio system has components that will be outdated by 2016 -- two years before another SPLOST could be considered.

“Even if it (the SPLOST) doesn’t pass, we’re still going to have to look for those funds,” Harlowe said. “Because we’re still going to have to upgrade it.”

Motorola will begin phasing out major components of the system next year and will no longer support those components by 2016, said Tim Ealer, the center’s communications systems manager .

The county’s problem comes down to something similar to what most Americans face with updating personal computers. Messages from newer systems are harder to receive. Other software can’t communicate with certain programs.

The decision is to either wait for that computer to stop working or spend the bucks on a new computer.

Harlowe said the former isn’t an option for an emergency system. It could mean dispatch has no way to communicate with emergency personnel in emergency situations.

“Most people don’t even know the 911 Center is there because most people don’t have to make emergency calls all the time,” Houston Commission Chairman Tommy Stalnaker said. “When you need it, it needs to be there. ... It’s got to be responsive, and it’s got to be good.”

The E-911 Center began dispatching emergency calls in 1992. Before then, Centerville, Perry, Warner Robins and Houston County each dispatched their own calls and operated on antiquated VHF systems, Harlowe said.

The current 800 MHz system was installed with about $12 million from the 2001 county SPLOST. Harlowe said the updates will cost less this time because not all components have to be replaced.

If it passes, 2012 SPLOST money would be spent on a new 800 MHz trunking system, mobile data terminals for all agencies’ police vehicles and software updates.

“If we don’t have a SPLOST, it’s hard to come up with seven, eight million dollars,” Harlowe said.

The mobile data terminals are the small laptop-like computers in police cruisers that allow officers to view updates, look up criminal histories and file reports from the field. Though similar to laptops, and at least $2,000 more than a standard laptop, Harlowe said the mobile data terminals are made for the bumpy ride in a police car.

“If you put a regular laptop in there, I don’t think it would withstand” the constant motion of a police cruiser, he said.

The proposed SPLOST projects list contains 94 units for the Warner Robins Police Department, 76 for the Houston County Sheriff’s Office, 20 for the Perry Police Department and 10 for the Centerville Police Department.

Harlowe said the upgrades also will increase data speed, which the system requires because of the Houston County population boom. As each agency grows to serve their respective growing communities, new radios are hooked into the E-911 communications system.

“It’s like a PVC pipe this big,” he said, curling his fingers into a circle. “You can only push so much through it.”

The Houston County population increase during the past decade has been listed as the culprit behind other necessities on the proposed SPLOST projects list.

Stalnaker said the funds earmarked for industrial growth are needed to widen the tax base for the county and its cities. As the population grows, increased service needs burden residential taxpayers.

More industry would reduce that burden because industrial property brings in more for the general fund. It would also create more jobs, Stalnaker said. The earmarked 2012 SPLOST funds would be spent to buy land throughout the county for industrial parks in preparation for new businesses coming to the area.

“If you don’t have (prepared land), you will never have (industrial interest),” Stalnaker said.

The countywide list of projects also includes about $25.3 million for various road projects, including widenings of Elberta, Gunn and Lake Joy roads. It’s far less than the corresponding $87.8 million budgeted for countywide transportation in the 2006 SPLOST

Stalnaker said less emphasis has been placed on transportation for this sales tax than the previous two SPLOSTs, a decision former Houston County Chairman Ned Sanders agreed with.

The commissioners are “addressing a lot of the needs that weren’t addressed in the previous SPLOSTs,” Sanders said.

One of those is the E-911 Center.

Otherwise, Harlowe said, the system could revert to the days when he was a street cop. It’s a deadly predicament, he added -- for the public and emergency personnel alike.

“If we can’t communicate with them, we can’t get them to the call,” Harlowe said. “If we can’t get them to the call, then they can’t help.”

To contact writer, Christina M. Wright, call 256-9685.

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