Berkeley County to create a new 9-1-1 call center
Last Monday, Berkeley County Council passed a second reading on a number of ordinances tied to the county’s prospective 2017-2018 budget, bringing the passage of the body’s working budget for the coming fiscal year one step closer to completion.
This year’s will be the third budget passed since County Supervisor Bill Peagler was brought on to lead the county, and in keeping with the first two budgets passed by County Council during his administration, much change is on the way with regard to how the county delivers key services to constituents.
Last month, at a meeting of the Daniel Island Neighborhood Association (DINA), Berkeley County Deputy Supervisor and key budget official Tim Callanan confirmed that of all the changes county residents should expect in the coming year, perhaps most exciting is the implementation of a new system to handle 9-1-1 calls. And not only is the county in the process of starting design work for a new 9-1-1 facility, as Callanan reported to a welcome audience at DINA, the county will also be implementing an entirely new 9-1-1 system that will eliminate what has been a long history of trouble related to the service, particularly when it comes to calls that had to be “handed off” between dispatch centers.
Callanan further stated that the county made the choice not to integrate completely with Charleston County’s 9-1-1 Consolidated Dispatch Center, but rather to construct their own facility and instead tie Berkeley County’s system with that of Charleston County digitally. The two systems will ultimately run the same software and will communicate and serve as back-up centers for each other via a dedicated metro ethernet connection. As such, communications between Charleston and Berkeley will no longer need to be routed by a telecommunicator audibly, as calls will be dispatched automatically to the requisite call center.
Peagler, Callanan and their team, knowing infrastructure projects take time to matriculate, began the process of investigating what to do about the county’s 9-1-1 system several years ago. Prior to taking on his current post in 2015, Callanan served as a member of Berkeley County Council for seven years, during which time the issue of how to best handle 9-1-1 calls was often a topic of discussion.
As to why Berkeley County elected to go the route of creating their own dedicated call center instead of joining Charleston County Consolidated Dispatch, which debuted in 2014, Callanan refers back to January of 2015.
“Within the first two months, one of the first meetings I had was with the head of Charleston County Consolidated Dispatch to talk about the possibility of joining,” he said, before turning to what held them back from joining Charleston’s system.
“There were a couple of things. One was that (Charleston County was) trying something new and we knew there would be enormous growing pains for them and there were. It was kind of clear after a while too that they didn’t have the space at their facility. They would have to build and expand if they ever wanted to provide us the service. And on our end of it, there was a desire to have some autonomy for Berkeley County.”
As it stands now, when a Daniel Island resident calls for emergency fire or police services with a cell phone, the call is often routed through Berkeley County’s current 9-1-1 call center. The request then has to be “handed off” to Charleston County, as fire and police services on Daniel Island are supplied by the City of Charleston (Berkeley County dispatches EMS).
“If you sit in the Charleston Consolidated dispatch, the only voices you hear are the voices of the telecommunicators talking to people on the other line or talking to dispatch on the other line,” said Callanan. “Everything else is transmitted electronically, so our logic was ‘why don’t we just link our systems together through a metro ethernet connection?’”
“With the new system, when a cell phone call comes in and…they want fire dispatched to Daniel Island, our telecommunicators can type it in and send it to dispatch down in Charleston electronically, just as if they were in the room taking the call,” he continued.
Callanan believes he and his team have come up with “a pretty good solution” working with Charleston County, one that has the potential to benefit both counties.
“It’ll be just as if we were in the building with them, but we will actually have our own facility,” Callanan added. “That said, being tied into a similar system at Charleston County, that’s about as efficient as you’re going to get.”
It was over a year ago Berkeley County Council funded the new 9-1-1 facility as part of a $30 million municipal bond the county issued. Of the projects outlined for the bond, the 9-1-1 facility was at the top of the priority list.
“We knew that within the first year to get stuff done we had to make decisions relatively fast, because they take years to implement,” said Callanan. “So once we figured out that we couldn’t be physically consolidated, we wanted to be Berkeley consolidated - so we knew we had to invest in a new facility.”
The county was in such a “deep hole” when it came to public safety, added Callanan, that they are continuing to dig themselves out. For example, he continued, for all the growth the county has experienced in the last decade, they have only added one new deputy to the Sheriff’s Department.
“We’ve tried to respond to that,” Callanan said. “….We’ve made huge investments in the Sheriff’s Department. I think the first year we grew by 15 percent in our first budget (in 2015). I think it has more to do with priorities than anything else. Our revenues have always been growing, so it’s where you put the money.”
Callanan is the first to admit that Berkeley County is still adjusting to life as the fastest growing county in the state and one of the fastest growing in the country. And while he admits they have a long way to go, they are continuing to make progress.
“At least now we have a plan to get there, which is a huge leap forward to where we were a few years ago.”