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Let there be light

Washington County 911 dispatchers were honored last week for their handling of the August 31, 2012, Red Roof Inn hostage situation. Bulletin file photo

For 16 years, Washington County's emergency dispatchers worked in a hole in the ground.

More specifically, they worked in a 1,300-foot concrete room a floor below the sheriff's office basement, where their only view was into an identically sized, fluorescently-lit space in which the county's emergency management staff still works.

As time passed, equipment and staff began piling up. After the sheriff's office closed its Cottage Grove communications center to save costs, as many as nine dispatchers wedged into bathtub-sized desks equipped with increasingly outdated telephone, radio and computer equipment. Dozens of cathode-ray tube monitors made the room hot and uncomfortable for dispatchers who worked in 10-hour shifts, for as many as 50 hours in a week.

"It's like a dark dungeon, we were all crammed in," said Jen Peltier, a veteran 911 dispatcher who has worked for the sheriff's office since 1998. "When you backed up you'd back into somebody, and two people couldn't walk between [stations] at the same time."

Despite these conditions, the room and its staff comprised the nerve center for the thousands of emergency calls linking citizens, law enforcement and fire agencies throughout the county. In the aftermath of the Hugo tornado last year, it was ground zero for emergency operations that affected hundreds of people.

"It was difficult for our dispatchers to do their jobs, said communications center manager Darlene Pankonie, a civilian who was hired to manage the center last year.

During a tour of the old dispatch room, she spaced her palms about a keyboard's length apart. "Look about you. A lot of the equipment is gone now, but this is about how much space our dispatchers had for their hands and arms."

By the early '00s, the old communications center was a source of morale problems and one of the first issues Sheriff Bill Hutton promised to address when before he was elected in 2006.

The dispatchers got their wish for a better working space last year, when the Washington County Board of Commissioners approved a $59 million project to expand and remodel the county's government center, courts and sheriff's department.

Over $1 million was to be dedicated to building and equipping a new communications center. The sheriff's office portion is included in the project's first phase and is nearly complete. The entire five-phase project is slated for finish in 2011.

On April 7, dispatchers moved four flights straight up, into the new space atop the sheriff's office. According to dispatchers, the difference was literally night and day.

"There was light!" Peltier said. A wall of windows facing the sheriff's office parking lot gives dispatchers a much-desired glimpse at the outside world, as well as some much needed vitamin D. "After not seeing the sun for so many years, not knowing the weather, it was a huge improvement."

Their workspace quadrupled, and with this came improvements to productivity and morale, Pankonie said.

Dispatchers had already moved to the new 800-megahertz digital radio system that allows emergency personnel across the county and state to communicate freely, and were getting used to new software to intricately manage the hundreds of telephone calls they receive each day. Washington County deputies moved from an older analog system to the digital system March 2, but dispatchers retain the ability to receive radio calls over the old analog system.

Each dispatcher now works at a mechanically adjustable, ergonomic desk, each equipped with six 20-inch LCD monitors. Desks are arranged in pairs, and by region and task, so that dispatchers can work in pairs instead of shouting across a room. A wide trackway around the stations can be filled later as the county's population grows.

With the added room, as many as 16 dispatchers can work simultaneously in emergencies, which will come in handy during the next big emergency.

The new center includes separate locker-, break- and restroom facilities, as well as a training room and two dispatch stations where new hires can learn their jobs. These stations can be used for dispatching during emergencies as well.

Last Friday, dispatcher Tassia White presided over a set of six monitors from which she tracked emergency calls, managed radio conversations, tracked and communicated with patrol officers and entered incident information into a department database. Events were followed on a computerized map, while others screens provided National Weather Service radar information and Internet access by which she could view state and federal databases, traffic cameras and other information sources.

On staff for the past three years, White considers the new space an improvement over the cramped quarters downstairs. To demonstrate, she adjusts her ergonomic office chair, then stands to press buttons that automatically raise and lower platforms containing her monitors and keyboards. She can control her temperature using desk-mounted vents.

"How is it here? It doesn't compare," White said. "Downstairs is very small, very dark and dingy. But upstairs is absolutely beautiful. There's sunshine."

If White gets sore in one position, she said, she can move her tools to more comfortable angles, whether she stands or sits. When another dispatcher uses the same station during another shift, they can adjust the workspace to fit their size, shape or preference.

More equipment is on the way. In the next couple of months, Pankonie said, the center will add electronic bulletin boards to post internal training, and procedural information that is pertinent to all dispatchers, as well as other monitors that can display live feeds from cable news stations and other information sources.

Commander Dan Starry, who oversees the communications center, as well as the sheriff's office records department and SWAT team, said the upgrade was well earned and long overdue.

"I think what it comes down to is that the dispatchers are there 10 hours a day and they have to have appropriate conditions to work in to do their jobs," he said. "Whether you travel in a car or sit at a desk, you have to have the tools. I think [the communications center] accomplishes this."