New emergency dispatch center sits on the cutting edge

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New emergency dispatch center sits on the cutting edge
Jo-Anne Munroe has been tasked with leading Alexandria’s emergency communications team into the 21st century. Munroe, who served as a deputy commissioner overseeing a consolidated communications center in Onondaga County, N.Y., is preparing to move her staff into a third-floor, state-of-the-art communications center at police headquarters. (Photo: Derrick Perkins)
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Standing beside a desk covered in computers, a bank of monitors tracking incident reports from around the city lining the wall, Jo-Anne Munroe recalls how far public safety dispatching has come in her career.

Munroe was tasked with heading Alexandria’s recently consolidated emergency communications department from the third floor of the newly built Wheeler Avenue police headquarters. She became a public safety official in upstate New York in the 1970s, when emergency reports were taken down on paper.

“I remember we used a piece of paper and a pen to write down calls and hand it to dispatch or send it up a conveyor belt,” she said. “Here’s the training I got in 1977: I was brought in, told to report for duty and was assigned to another employee that told me [how to answer calls] and then said, ‘Go ahead, start answering phones.’”

Not so anymore. When the emergency communications center opens early next year, nine or 10 employees, many of whom will have undergone more than a year of training, will man the array of computer consoles during 12-hour shifts.

Visitors joke the plethora of desks, computer terminals and monitors remind them of a starship, but it’s all part of a dispatcher’s job in the 21st century. From one computer screen to the next, officials can scan incident and call logs, track first responders around the city and map out emergency scenes.

Eventually, the department may be able to receive text message reports and bring up videos shot on cell phones by witnesses, she said.

Though consolidating police and fire communications into a single, independent department is new to Alexandria, the idea is not. Arlington County and Newport News boast unified communications departments, as well as other jurisdictions across the country.

Former City Manager Jim Hartmann originally pitched the concept in Alexandria, said Michele Evans, deputy city manager. A study finished by consultant firm L. Robert Kimball and Associates in 2008 recommended several options for consolidating emergency communications — until that point handled individually by the police and fire departments — and city council opted to create a new city department two years later, Evans said.

“At the time, we were in the process of putting together the new building for the police department and we had a space to build a new communication center,” she said. “All those things came together at once.”

Though the report outlined ways to consolidate communications within the existing fire or police departments, it highlighted potential problems, including internecine political fights and the appearance of favoritism.

“Often when the communications center is [run by] either police or fire, conflicts between the heads of those agencies can virtually eliminate any forward movement by the communications director for the center … While current relationships are positive, this structure would protect the center from the impact of negative relationships in the future,” according to the 2008 report.

Police Chief Earl Cook and fire Chief Adam Thiel supported creating an independent department staffed by dispatchers and call receivers versed in both departments’ protocols.

Officials tapped Munroe to lead the new department in 2010, in part because of her lack of ties to Alexandria, Evans said. Munroe came to the city from Onondaga County, N.Y., where she served as a deputy commissioner overseeing a consolidated communications center.

Now Munroe eagerly awaits moving her staff into the communications center — a process delayed by striking Verizon employees earlier this year — and getting situated.

“These people that do the work in this room, they are truly the first responders,” Munroe said. “They are the first persons the community hears from when they call.”

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