Comm Center Plans

More and more agencies find themselves in a position of having to consolidate their operations in a new comm center, or start from scratch to create a dispatch agency. We've collected some tips, suggestions and recommendations for starting up a new or consolidated comm center. Although the plans are slanted towards a consolidated, county-wide center, much of the material is also be applicable to an agency that is remodeling or otherwise revising their physical operation.

  • The federal Access Board Web site has material on the design of public facilities to meet the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)
  • The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) has an on-line course in modern comm center design.
  • We've prepared some to-scale drawings of comm center consoles, desks and other furniture that you can use to plan your comm center layout
  • The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has posted a Facility Planning Guide for law enforcement agencies [Acrobat, pdf format]
  • NENA has issued a facility planning document that you can download (pdf).

1. Personnel

1.1 Positions and Duties

Staffing should be multi-level and include specialists for each type of job function, as follows:

These personnel handle the basic telephone and radio duties for receiving and dispatching incidents. They may also serve as specialists under the Training or Systems Manager.

Supervising Dispatcher
These personnel supervise the basic level dispatchers and make second-level decisions regarding dispatching and staffing.

Systems Specialist
This position includes dispatchers who have specific talents and duties in computer systems, mapping and geofiles, radio and telephones.

Shift Supervisor
These personnel provide administration of dispatching personnel, including staffing, training, discipline and advancement.

Systems Manager
This person manages a team of System Specialists that maintain the center's computer, radio and telephone systems.

Training Manager
This person administers the recruiting, selection, hiring, training, evaluations and promotional processes. This person may also be the liaison to EMS agencies.

Center Manager
This person has overall administrative responsibility for the center's operation.

1.2 Recruiting and Hiring

There are two options for finding, selecting and hiring personnel to staff the consolidated center. Some consideration should be given to personnel who might lose their jobs because positions are eliminated from consolidation.

Existing Personnel -- Establish a process for accepting applications from existing comm centers in Alameda County, then select personnel from that group. Positions not filled from with the current ranks would be advertised outside.

New Personnel -- Accept applications from any interested person with the required level of experience.

1.3 Training

Personnel selected for hiring should already have the required skills to perform basic dispatching. This is especially true for management and supervisory personnel who would be involved the center's start-up.

Initial training should include operation of the center's telephone, radio and computer system. If pre-arrival medical instructions are to be implemented, training classes should be given to all new dispatchers.

1.4 Compensation

The pay scales for all positions will generally be based on current dispatcher pay rates. That is, supervisory and management-level position pay rates would be percentages increments over the dispatchers' base pay.

Besides having several pay steps based on length of service, most existing dispatcher contracts include premium pay for working the evening and night shifts. There is also premium pay for dispatchers who perform training, act in a high position, and work holidays.

1.4 Union Relations

If personnel are hired from existing comm centers, consideration should be given to how current contracts will be transferred or otherwise honored. Consideration should also be given to how the new employees might be represented.

2. Policies and Procedures

2.1 Internal

The communications center should be governed by rules and regulations, taken from existing department communications centers and revised to handle a consolidated center. The rules and regulations should take into account any existing employee union agreements.

2.2 Dispatching

The dispatching policies and procedures for the communications center should be drawn from each individual department. They should be simplified and consolidated where possible with the agreement of the participating agencies.

2.3 Accreditation

The agency should consider accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA).

3. Site

3.1 Building

There are three options:

Existing Site & Building

Use an existing site and building and adapt it for use as a consolidated center. It is unlikely that any existing comm center in Alameda County would have the necessary space, security and support systems for a consolidated center. However, this would be the least costly alternative.

Existing Site & New Building

Use an existing site but build a new center. There may be existing sites within Alameda County that meet the necessary requirements and which are currently owned by a government entity. This alternative would eliminate the cost and administrative process of purchasing land. However, there would be a tendency to compromise on site requirements to save money.

New Site & New Building

Acquire a new site and build a new center. This alternative would be the most expensive, but would allow complete flexibility in choosing the most acceptable site.

3.2 Location and Access

The comm center site should meet the following basic requirements:

3.2.1 Size

The site should be large enough to accommodate the main comm center building, for a separate structure housing an emergency generator, and underground fuel storage. It should also allow an area for parking employee cars, special vehicles (mobile EOC), and other vehicles and temporary structures required during a disaster (tents, shelters, helicopter landing zone, etc.). The lot should be large enough to allow a sufficient set-back from structures on adjacent property that might present a collapse, fire or other hazard.

3.2.2 Safety

The site should be free from potential hazards, such as overhead power transmission lines, freeway overpasses, trees, flooding from creeks or streams, earthquake faults, brush fires, vehicle off-road accidents, underground pipelines, underground pipelines, etc.

3.2.3 Access

The site should be centrally located so all county agencies have short driving times to the center. It should be adjacent to one or more major freeways or state highways. The roads leading to the center should be free of major potential obstructions in time of earthquake or other natural disaster, including over/underpasses, overhead power lines, and street light supports.

3.2.4 Communications

The site should have current or easily-installed access to communications links, including the public telephone system, existing county and municipal radio links, microwave towers, etc. The site should not be obscured by hills or mountains so that future communications wireless links can be installed. Site consideration should be given to the ease of accessing multiple communciation links to insure redundancy.

3.2.5 Future Growth

The site should be sized and arranged to allow future additions to the building for more fire or law enforcement agencies.

3.3 Utilities

The center should have easily installed access to the existing public telephone system, water lines, power lines, and a sanitary sewer.

The utilities should be arranged to enter the building in a place and method that will not create a hazard during any natural disaster or the failure of any utility supporting structure.

Consideration should be given to providing dual (or more) paths for electrical and telephone links to the center, from multiple sub-stations or central offices.

Utilities should enter the building and be otherwise arranged to prevent any water leak or electrical incident from physically affecting the building. That is, a water main break, electrical short of fire would not impinge upon the building or any of its critical systems.

The building's critical electrical needs should be supplied through an uninterruptible power supply (UPS), which is capable of providing enough power to keep those functions operating for 15 minutes.

The building's critical and necessary electrical needs should be supplemented with a generator powered by an appropriate fuel (propane, natural gas, diesel, etc.), which is capable of providing power for at least 8 hours. The fuel tank should be located in an area so as not to endanger the building or dispatch area if a leak or other dangerous situation occurs, and in an area easily accessible by a fuel truck under all weather conditions.

3.4 Parking

The site should be large enough to accommodate everyday employee parking, storage of specialized communications units (EOC vans), and staging of mutual aid support units during a multi-agency incident.

3.5 Furnishings and Furniture

The furniture should take into consideration durability, safety, ergonomics and appearance.

The arrangement of the furniture in the office area should emphasize functionality, ease of communications and mirror the natural contacts that may be necessary between the various job positions.

The arrangement of furniture in the comm center area should take into consideration:

  • necessity to communicate visually and verbally between dispatchers
  • isolation of noise between adjacent positions
  • adjacency to paper files or other reference sources
  • adjacency to dispatching equipment
  • glare from window or other openings
  • comm center area traffic patterns
  • other building traffic patterns

3.6 Security

The following security features should be considered:

3.6.1 Site

The site should be fenced to prevent unauthorized persons from approaching the building. The fence should be sufficiently distant from the building that objects cannot be thrown near or onto the building.

The building and landscape design should not create any hiding or blind spots where persons or vehicles are obscured from anyone inside the building, or by the building video surveillance system.

The exterior of the building should be surveilled by one or more video cameras showing at least the fence gate and exterior doors of the building.

There should be no signs visible from the street indicating the building's use as a communications center.

Consideration should be given to constructing an earthen berm between the building and any adjacent public street, to prevent persons from firing any projectile at the building, either from a moving vehicle or from a remote location.

There should be sufficient lighting around the building exterior to allow viewing of unauthorized persons on the site and at the building doors.

There should be sufficient clearance from the building and any adjacent structures capable of radiating or spreading fire, from trees that might fall or spread fire, or any other structure that could cause damage to the center. Any associated antenna towers or structures should be located at a safe distance from the center building, so collapse of any structure would not strike the communications building.

3.6.2 Building

Access to the building should be controlled by a computer-controlled, keyless security system. The system should allow immediate, on-site changes to the list of authorized users, including activation, deactivation and password/number changes. The system should record all access activity, along with the date, time, user and door ID.

All openings in the exterior wall should not face directly into working areas of the building, unless they are protected from projectile damage or puncture.

Consideration should be given to protecting any exposure (window, door, fan opening, etc.) from fires in adjacent buildings, brush or trees. Metal fire shutters, sprinklers or other appropriate protection should be provided if such exposures exist.

The public entryway should be designed to provide physical protection for the receptionist and to prevent visitors from leaving the reception area without authorization.

3.6.3 Interior

The interior doors to the comm center area, the computer room, telephone equipment room and other sensitive areas should be protected by a keyless access system. The security system should allow an alarm to be sounded at a remote location during certain periods, when a specific person enters the room, or when other conditions are met.

3.6.4 Computer

All computer systems used in the building should be housed in secure areas not accessible to the public. All programs running dispatch-related programs shall be protected by a system of user names and passwords. The password system shall allow the system manager to designate how often passwords must be changed by individual users and their format (length, if letters and numbers required, etc.).

The vendors of all computer systems shall document all usernames and passwords either built into the software or added for the access of vendor support personnel. The system and application software that uses passwords shall allow sufficient access for management to determine what usernames and passwords have been issued for each system and application.

All computer links leading out of the building should terminate at a secure location (firehouse, other comm center, etc.). Consideration should be given to requiring all modem links to the computers system to be actived only upon request (trouble-shooting by CAD support, etc.), and then only for the duration of the work performed. At other times, the modem is physically unplugged from the telephone line.

3.6.5 Fire/Other

The comm center shall at least meet all applicable fire code requirements for the jurisdiction in which the center is built. Consideration should be given to meeting the requirements of the national Uniform Fire Code. The comm center shall meet all applicable building codes for the city in which the center is built. Consideration should be given to meeting applicable standars for fire alarm centers promulgated by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA 1221).

Wall coverings, furnishings and carpet shall be of a type and design to minimize their fire danger and their generation of products of combustion.

The computer areas of the center shall be protected by a fixed Halon sprinkler system.

The electrical system of the center shall be arranged to allow shutting off the power to the smallest possible area of the building. The dispatch area of the building shall be served by at least two circuit breakers to allow selective control of the power in case of emergency or maintenance.

3.7 Building Layout

The building should be arranged so the dispatching area is not adjacent to any exterior wall of the building unless the structure (walls, windows, etc.) are sufficiently reinforced to protect against outside threats (rocks, bullets, vehicle entry, etc.).

The building should contain the following areas: reception area for outside visitors, administrative offices, employee locker room, break room, conference/meeting room, training room, dispatch area, storage rooms, computer room, emergency operations room.

The dispatching area, supervisors' officer and training room should be arranged so they are as close as possible to the computer room, so that cabling runs are minimized.

The bathrooms, break and other areas that have plumbing should be arranged so there is no possibility that spills, leaks or other water problems could flood or damage the dispatching area or computer room, including floor drains, scuppers or other features.

The training room should be located so that it may be used for live dispatching or an EOC during extraordinary incidents.

Consideration should given to the placement of the dispatch area, computer room and electrical service to minimize the routing of cables and power lines. Consideration should also be given to how cables and wires should be routed into the dispatch area: via a raised floor, raceways or overhead.

3.8 Consoles and Chairs Ergonomics

The consoles, chairs and other furniture shall be ergonomically designed, to lessen the chance of repetitive stress injuries. This should include chairs that are fully adjustable for height, back angle and height, and armrest height; consoles adjustable for height (from sitting down to standing up); keyboard rests adjustable for height, angle and distance from the console.

The consoles should be designed to allow easy access to all controls without reaching beyond a average arm's length. Terminals and other video displays should be placed an equal distance from the focal point of the console, and that distance should be according to any national standards or available studies. The video terminals should be arranged to allow their horizontal adjustment closer and further away from the dispatcher.

3.9 Lighting

Center lighting circuitry should be arranged to prevent a lighting failure to any large area of the building.

Lighting in all areas of the building shall conform to any national standard levels for office areas.

There should be overall and individual console lighting in the dispatching area. The console lighting should individually controllable at each console. Consideration should be given to incandescent lighting for the console areas. Overall lighting should be arranged to minimize glare on video display terminals.

Consideration should be given to the placement of terminals and windows to reduce the amount of glare on the video terminals, or bright window light directly behind the video terminals.

3.10 Air Conditioning

The building air conditioning system should be arranged to provide a sufficient flow of fresh--not recirculated--air to the dispatch area, to filter the air to remove possible contaminants including pollen, mold, dust and mildew, and to reduce drafts on employees. Temperature control should be available to authorized personnel, but the range should be limited so it always provides sufficient cooling for electronic equipment in the building.

Consideration should be given to installing an electronic filtering system for that portion of the air conditioning system that serves the dispatch area, in order to further filter contaminants from the air. Consideration should be given to a positive pressure air system that keeps outside contaminants out.

3.11 Sound Control

The dispatch area should have some method of sound control for reducing the volume of noise, echoes and other unwanted artifacts. Methods include acoustic tiles, carpets, wall curtains or other coverings.

4. Systems

4.1 Telephone

The entire building should be served by an independent PBX system located in a secure area of the building and powered independently, or by a telephone company-provided switch (Centrex, etc.) located at a central office.

If appropriate, the emergency and non-emergency lines terminating in the dispatch area should be routed to an automatic call distributor (ACD) to expedite the routing of incoming calls to the next available calltaker. The ACD should provide a user-definable recording to callers explain: 1) their call has been answered and is being held in the order received; 2) that if they have an emergency, they should hang up and dial 911; 3) alternate contact telephone numbers.

If appropriate, the non-emergency telephone lines terminating in the dispatch area should be routed to an automated attendant, which allows the caller to self-route their call based on a series of voice prompts. The system should provide a user-definable recording that allows the agency to select the routing (units, departments, voice mail, etc.) and the option (press 1, press 2, etc.).

The telephone PBX, ACD and automated attendant systems should provide a selection of printed management reports to allow review of their proper and efficient operation. The ACD system should allow real-time monitoring to insure prompt answering of incoming calls, and an interface to display devices that can show the number of calls being held on which incoming telephone lines.

The PBX system should allow: calls to be put on hold, calls to be forwarded to another number, calls to be conferenced between at least the caller and two other telephones, speed dial of at least 50 numbers, voice mail, voice mail retrieval from outside phones. Optional features include call parking and pick-up, transfer or forward on no-answer, call waiting, caller ID for interior calls.

4.1.1 The 911 System

The center should be considered a secondary public safety answering point (PSAP) for each jurisdiction's 911 calls--the primary PSAP would be the police department or sheriff's department, depending upon the jurisdiction.

The 911 equipment at primary PSAPs should be arranged to allow one-button transfer of emergency calls to the consolidated center. The primary PSAPs should also have a list of 7-digit numbers that can be used to reach the center if the one-button transfer feature is inoperative.

Consideration should be given to an independent telephone link between the primary PSAPs and the consolidated center that can be used to relay calls if the 911 system is completely inoperative.

The 911 system should allow the addition of Phase I and II wireless E911 features, including the display of electronic maps.

The 911 system should allow a method of transferring incoming calls to a pre-designated alternate PSAP. Procedures should also be developed to allow an authorized person to semi-permanently transfer 911 calls to an alternate location in case of comm center evacuation for an extended period.

4.1.2 Internal

The consolidated center should have an internal communication system that allows quick and easy access to any dispatching position--telephones, intercom or public address. This system would be critical to meet one of the center's primary objectives--improved coordination during large incidents.

There should be an internal telephone system linking all offices and rooms in the building. The training room should be equipped with extra connections for live dispatching or as an EOC during large emergencies.

4.1.3 Public Telephone

The center should be served by the public telephone system. The system should allow direct dialing to specific offices. To minimize the possibility of a disruption, consideration should be given to having dual, independent paths to the center and service from two telephone company central offices.

The system should allow on-site changing of numbers and features.

The system should allow:

  • no-answer forwarding
  • user-selectable forwarding
  • voice mail

4.1.4 County Telephone System

The consolidated center should be added to any county or regional telephone system to allow direct communications with any county public safety agency. Consideration should be given to having dual, independent paths into the system, possibly using two methods (microwave, wired, etc.).

4.1.5 Other

The emergency and non-emergency telephone lines terminating in dispatch area, and all appropriate radio channels should be recorded continuously by a logging recorder system that allows archiving of the media (digital tape, CD-ROM, DVD, etc.). The logging recorder system should allow authorized persons to find, play, listen to and re-record on another media (cassette tape) any selection of time, console, phone line or radio channel. The system should allow playback of several channels/lines at once, to allow a compilation of several conversations and transmissions.

Each position used for answering telephone calls for service from the public should be equipped with an instant playback logging recorder device, with at least a 30-minute total call capacity. The device should allow immediate playback of the last call, and quick access to previous calls within the 30-minute capacity window, all without the dispatcher leaving the console. This instant playback feature may be provided as part of the 24-hour logging recorder system, or as a separate recorder system.

4.1.6 Back-Up

The 911 and 7-digit public telephone numbers for the comm center should be immediately accessible from a point outside the building, in case the building cannot be occupied (natural gas leak or other contamination). This can be arranged either by terminating the lines at an outside junction box to allow connection of back-up phones (stand-alone set-up or mobile comm van), or by terminating lines at a separate building on the site.

The 911, and optionally the 7-digit public telephone numbers, should have the capability of being re-routed within no more than 30 minute to another location, either another location with sufficient phones to accomodate the dispatch operation (firehouse, precinct station, school, etc.) or to another comm center willing to handle the center's calls during the evacuation.

There should be a written evacuation plan that sets out how the specific steps for supervisors to take if an evacuation is required. The plan should include a list of equipment, supplies, maps, lists and other items to remove from the comm center, how to re-route telephone lines (names and telephone numbers), methods of transporting dispatchers to an alternate site, and procedures for re-occupying the center.

There should be at least one wireless telephone available to the on-duty supervisor at all times to use in case of any communications emergency at the center.

4.2 Computers

4.2.1 CAD

The computer-aided dispatch (CAD) computer should have all the call entry, dispatching and status tracking features, plus the following:

  • Multiple-jurisdiction capability -- The software must support multiple jurisdictions, both in dispatching and in incident reporting. Each agency must have the ability to establish the agency to handle each type of incident (police, fire EMS), type of unit to respond for each agency (canine, HAZMAT, single-officer, paramedic, etc.), and how many units to respond.
  • Fire move-ups, cover-ins, mutual aid-- The software must allow fire units to move to other fire stations and assume their response district, both within a jurisdiction and across jurisdiction boundaries.
  • Fire station printers -- The software should support automatic printing of incident information at fire stations.
  • Fire station paging -- The software should support automatic radio paging of fire stations during incident dispatch, using the codes of the chosen radio paging encoder.
  • EMS capability -- At least three fire departments (Albany, Berkeley and Piedmont) operate ambulances as fire units.
  • Units operating as fire-only or medical-only -- Fire units frequently change their status from fire-medical to either fire-only or medical-only, depending upon equipment or personnel changes. CAD must be able to recognize the status changes and recommend units accordingly.
  • The capability to consolidate street, intersection and commonplace names from existing CAD geofiles. Many cities in the county already have CAD and have spent considerable time and effort to insure the accuracy of their geofile, including freeways, places without street numbers, parks, and commonplace names. These files should be combined to create the base geofile for consolidated CAD.
  • The recommendation table must store up to 20 levels of response for each type of incident, and up to 20 alternate units for each level. CAD Back-Up

The CAD network should be accessible when needed from an alternate location (see 4.1.6), preferably the same location where re-routed telephone lines are accessible. The alternate location should not have live CAD access unless the location is secure and the terminals are protected by username/password security.

4.2.2 Pre-Arrival Instructions

The comm center should have computerized Emergency Medical Dispatch (EMD) with pre-arrival instructions (PAI), either within the CAD program itself or on a stand-alone computer accessible at every terminal.

4.2.3 State Fire Reporting

There are two alternatives to allow CAD incident data to help create CFIRS data:

Central Computer
The CAD computer processes incident data into formats acceptable to each agency's separate CFIRS reporting requirements.

Agency Computers
Each agency maintains its own separate CFIRS reporting system and hand enters the data into it from printed reports provided by the consolidated center.

4.2.4 Word Processing

The center should have personal computer word processing software available for all management and supervisory personnel to create memos, letters, reports and analysis.

4.4.4 GIS

The center should have a geographic information system (GIS), either integrated into the CAD software or as a separate program running on a PC. The GIS would be used to maintain the CAD geofile and for incident analysis by individual jurisdictions.

4.4.5 Other

The critical date/time functions of the dispatch area should be obtained from a master clock system that is synchronized from a universal standard (GPS, WWV, Internet, etc.). These systems include the logging recorder, CAD, trunked radio and telephone systems.

Where appropriate, consideration should be given to the installation of a weather radar system or other method of monitoring the weather conditions in real time (cable TV channel, etc.). Likewise, consideration should be given to installation of a NOAA weather radio.

4.3 Radio

4.3.1 Transmit

There must be sufficient transmitter sites to cover the entire consolidated area.

4.3.2 Receive

There must be sufficient remote receiver sites to allow reception from portable radios throughout the consolidated area, under all circumstances likely to be encountered by field personnel (inside buildings, in underground transit tunnels, etc.).

4.3.3 Links

The transmitter and receiver sites should be linked to the comm center by two or more methods that insure that no single interruption of service renders a large geographic area without radio service. For example, key transmitter sites can be linked by microwave, and backed up by telephone lines. Key receiver sites might be linked by telephone lines backed up by radio links.

Construction and security considerations at the remote radio sites should follow the same guidelines as for the comm center.

The links should allow the transmission of radio, telephone and mobile data.

4.4.4 Consoles

There should be sufficient consoles to allow at least one console for each participating agency. There should be at least two consoles available in a separate area for training. There should be at least two consoles available in the EOC for special events and multi-agency incidents. The dispatch area should have a supervisory area that has a physical view of the dispatch area, and access to all computer and radio systems, building alarms, and video surveillance systems.

All consoles should be designed and equipped identically, to allow control and operation of any radio channel and jurisdiction from any console. Each console should have two headset jacks that allow operation of radio and telephones, to provide back-up access, dual-dispatcher operation at a console, and side-by-side training or observation by a supervisor.

4.4.5 Channel Patches

The radio system should allow patching, or interconnection, to other VHF, UHF and 800 MHz radio systems used by public safety agencies with the consolidated area. The radio system should allow an authorized person to disable the repeater on any channel.

4.5.6 Mobile Data Terminals

The radio system should be capable of supporting a mobile data terminal system. Consideration should be given to existing systems and how they might be expanded to accommodate the consolidated area, rather than building a new system.

4.5.7 Mobile Status Terminals

The radio system should be capable of supporting a mobile status terminal system. Consideration should be given to existing systems and how they might be expanded to accommodate the consolidated area, rather than building a new system.

4.5.8 Video

The radio receiver sites and site-to-center links should be designed with the capability of transmitting live video, for use in handling major incidents.

4.5.9 Data

The radio receiver sites and site-to-center links should be designed with the capability of transmitting digital data, for use in handling major incidents.

4.5.10 Teletype

The facility should be arranged to allow reception of teletype information from state and national sources which transmit weather, natural disaster and national warning information. The link should also handle inquiries and responses from law enforcement databases at the local, county, state and federal level.

4.5.11 Paging Fire Stations

The radio system should be capable of supporting a fire station radio alerting system. Consideration should be given to existing alerting systems and how they might be expanded to accommodate the consolidated area. The system should provide sufficient individual codes to allow individually alerting each fire station handled by the comm center, with future expansion. The system should allow sufficient command codes to handle opening gates or doors, turning on lights, sounding an alert device, or activating other equipment individually. Personnel

The radio system should be capable of supporting a personnel paging system. Consideration should be given to existing systems and how they might be expanded to accommodate the consolidated area.

If in-house paging does not provide sufficient geographic coverage, then a contract paging service should be employed to provide paging services.

Besides individual pager numbers, the paging system or service should allow group paging, by entering a single number or telephone number, whereby several pagers would be activated at once.

4.5.12 Phone Patch

Consideration should be given to installing the capability to patch a designated or any radio channel into the PBX telephone system, to allow field units to make a telephone call using their radio.

[Typical comm centers]