Tuesday, September 26, 2023

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County agrees to buy former BD building along I-85/40 to house consolidated 9-1-1 center

Alamance County’s commissioners have decided to purchase a former industrial building in Burlington along I-85/40 to serve as a new, centralized location for the county’s 9-1-1 center and other local emergency services.

During a regularly-scheduled meeting on Monday, the commissioners unanimously agreed to use nearly $7.3 million in state funds to acquire this 69,741 square foot facility at 780 Plantation Drive – which formerly housed the operations of BD Diagnostics (formerly known as Becton Dickinson).

By clearing this purchase, the commissioners have not only paved the way for the county’s 9-1-1 Center to move into a new, more commodious home; they have also laid the foundation for it to share these digs with other local emergency services – and, in particular, a freestanding emergency communications center that the city of Burlington currently operates on behalf of itself and the city of Graham.

Sherry Hook, Alamance County’s deputy manager, reminded the commissioners that this new, co-located facility won’t spell a complete end to the independence of Burlington’s emergency communications.

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“The ability to have the two services co-located would allow some improved response in escalating incidents and multijurisdictional incidents,” Hook told the commissioners before Monday’s 5-to-0 decision.  “We would have a shared software system,” she added, “but this would not take care of the radio system [which would remain separate for Burlington and Alamance County].”

Under the current setup, all emergency calls placed in Alamance County initially arrive at the county’s 9-1-1 center in Graham. From there, these calls are either relayed directly to the responding agency, or if the emergency is in the city limits of Burlington or Graham, they’re forwarded to Burlington’s own bank of emergency dispatchers, who redirect the essential details to police officers and firefighters out in the field.

In the meantime, the city of Burlington also uses a Greensboro-based radio network for its field communications that’s not interoperable with the state-maintained Viper system that’s de rigueur for the county.

This divided system initially grew out of Burlington’s attempts to keep up with the needs of a growing population without being hobbled by the shortcomings that at one time had plagued the county’s emergency communications. But the resulting compartmentalization has resulted in some high-profile breakdowns in communication.

One especially dramatic incident occurred in 2018 when Burlington police officers fatally shot a mentally disturbed man who approached them with a machete after the 9-1-1 center had failed to coordinate the law enforcement response to what began as an emergency call about a mental health crisis.

The improved interplay between these standalone operations eventually prompted North Carolina’s General Assembly to earmark $15 million for the county’s new 9-1-1 center in a recent state budget.

The county’s failure to do anything with these funds until now had proven something of a minor embarrassment for state senator Amy Scott Galey, who acknowledged as much earlier that morning when she and the rest of Alamance County’s legislative delegation met with Burlington’s city council shortly before the commissioners convened their own regularly-scheduled meeting.

“Why is it taking so long?” Galey inquired during the so-called legislative breakfast in Burlington.

“The county is really talking the lead on this,” Burlington’s city manager Craig Honeycutt said in response to Galey’s question, before he went on to affirm the city’s willingness to have its own dispatchers “co-located” in the county’s new emergency services center.

Under a proposal that Hook laid out to the commissioners on Monday, the county would be able to house both sets of dispatchers under the same roof within the former BD facility along Plantation Drive. The county would be in a position to bring in several other county-level operations, including the fire marshal and emergency management office.

Hook added that the county will be obligated to reserve 27,783 square feet within the facility for the state’s office of emergency management, which has signed a 10-year lease with the building’s current owner to use that area as storage space. She nevertheless assured the commissioners that the remaining 41,958 square feet is not only adequate for the county and Burlington’s existing needs but would also provide room for their operations to grow as their respective populations increase.

Hook went on to present the commissioners with two cost estimates for the building’s proposed conversion into a new emergency services center.

Under one proposal, the county would spend more than $25.3 million to fully renovate the facility for both the current needs of the agencies involved and for their future expansion. She added that, in addition to the $15 million from the state, the county can cover a portion of this sum using $2.2 million from the state’s 9-1-1 board as well as $4.2 million in lease payments that it can anticipate from the state emergency management office over the next decade. She nevertheless conceded that these revenues would still leave nearly $3.9 million of the project’s proposed price tag unaccounted for.

As an alternative to “full” renovation, Hook also floated a plan for partial renovation that she said would meet only the immediate needs of the county and its municipal counterpart. The deputy county manager said that, under this plan, the county would still have the space to expand its operations in the future, but it wouldn’t install any added equipment until needed, thereby reducing the project’s overall cost to about $17.2 million. She added that, using the same, aforementioned revenue projections, this plan would enable the county to pocket a surplus of $4.2 million after 10 years.

The commissioners proceeded to give the county manager the all-clear to close on the former BD facility at the building’s current list price of $7,299,000. They voted to take these funds out of the state’s $15 million allocation, which Hook conceded has earned some $283,000 in interest since the money originally appeared in the county government’s coffers.

The commissioners arrived at this 5-to-0 decision after a long, convoluted digression about Burlington’s reluctance to use the state’s Viper system for its emergency field communications. Some of the commissioners even seemed to believe that the city’s preference for the Greensboro system is responsible for the communication breakdowns that occasionally occur between the county’s 9-1-1 center and its counterpart in Burlington.

The board’s misconceptions were ultimately set straight by the county’s emergency management director, Yancy King, who spoke up during that morning’s discussion to explain just how the two radio systems work.

“Actually, having two radio systems coming into that one center is a plus because there are times when those radio systems go down,” King went on to elaborate. “All of us have the capability to switch between the two systems,” he added. “But it does take a little work for whoever is using the radio to know which button he has to turn to get on the right channel.”

Hook predicted that the renovated building along Plantation Drive will be ready for action by January of 2025.


See earlier coverage as county weighed whether to proceed with purchase first discussed in September: https://alamancenews.com/county-still-considering-purchase-of-former-b-d-site-for-ems-use/

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