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Middle Flint Regional E911 Center sets model for the state

The Middle Flint Regional E-911 Center in Ellaville celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. When the center began operating in March 2005 it was the first of its kind in the state and remains the largest regional 911 center, geographically and in the number of agencies served.


“This is a state record. Never before in the history of Georgia or the southeast have seven counties bonded and joined together for the benefit of their citizens,” said Senator George Hooks at the July 13, 2005, ribbon cutting. Former Governor Sonny Perdue also attended the ribbon cutting and said, “Kudos to the local governments for coming together. It’s time to have county and city pride in this accomplishment.”


The regional center originally included the seven counties of Dooly, Macon, Marion, Schley, Sumter, Taylor and Webster; Talbot joined in 2012. The region encompasses 2,800 square miles with a population of approximately 91,000.


“Prior to the creation of the regional 911 authority, no single county in the area could afford its own center,” said Executive Director Clayton Freeman, who has been with the center since 2009. “This regional concept has worked well for 10 years.”


The 911 center staff answers calls for 41 fire departments, 22 law enforcement agencies, and eight EMS agencies. Freeman said they receive an average of 255 calls a day, totaling approximately 93,000 calls a year. That number includes duplicate calls for some instances; he estimates there are 65,000 dispatched incidents each year. A lot of the call volume depends on the weather when there are reports of downed trees and power lines. A wreck on the Dooly County section of Interstate 75 can also create an increase in calls. Passing motorists will call in a wreck until emergency responders arrive on the scene. Freeman said they may get 20 calls for one accident.


911Dispatch2The center employs 24 dispatchers and five administrative staff people. Six dispatchers are on duty 24 hours a day, but the center has nine call stations so extra staffers can be called in during peak times such as during bad weather. The dispatchers work 12-hour shifts, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and every three months those working nights switch to the day shift and vice versa.


Nationally, the average dispatcher stays on the job 2½ to 3 years. Freeman said the local staff averages five years and some have worked there since the center opened 10 years ago. Jennifer Rushing started at the center as a dispatcher and is now the operations manager. She was on duty when the tornado hit Americus in 2007. “The phones just went crazy. We had 100 calls pending. All the lines were tied up,” she said. “It was quite overwhelming.” She praised the way all the dispatchers and the emergency responders worked together.


During major emergency or weather events the center must make sure it is still functioning. The computer equipment, battery backup, and dispatch center are enclosed in what the staff calls “The Vault” – reinforced concrete built to withstand high winds and storms. Two large generators supply power to the equipment if the electricity goes off. Freeman said they test the generators once a week to ensure they are operating properly.


Funding for the operation of the center comes from telephone surcharge fees and contributions from each county. All telephone companies charge $1.50 per month for each phone line (wired or wireless) to fund the 911 center. The phone company surcharges make up about 85 percent of the center’s budget with the remaining coming from the counties. The counties contribute a pro-rata share based on the amount of phone traffic handled by the center. Sumter County, the largest county in the region, makes up about 36%-37% while Webster, the smallest county, makes up about 3%.


Freeman said the center’s budget has taken a hit in recent years due to the decline in the number of landlines. In 2011 cell phones accounted for about 65 percent of the calls coming in; it’s now 75 percent. Each landline disconnected accounts for $18 a year. That may not sound like much, but when you multiply that by 1,000 lost lines that’s $18,000.


“It puts more of a burden on the counties to make up the shortfall,” said Freeman. “We had to cut operating expenses this year.” Regardless of the loss in revenue, Freeman said they still have a job to do and must stay up to date on 911 technology. “You don’t want to call 911 and no one answer.”


After making all the updates they could to the old answering system, Freeman said they had to install a new system in February of this year. “This has all the bells and whistles that will allow us to go forward,” he said. In the future the new system will allow the center to accept 911 messages via text, photos, and videos. “We can then pass that along to the first responders, but it will also require them to have the required technology in their vehicles.” Freeman estimates it may be another couple of years before that service is available and they are working with vendors such as Verizon and Alltel to make sure it works properly.


“What we need in rural Georgia is a good Internet backbone that we can depend on.” He said the state is working on establishing a system for emergency use only so the public would not be using the bandwidth needed by dispatch centers and emergency workers.


The center is managed by the Middle Flint Regional E911 Authority, which includes a representative appointed by each County Commission in the region. The board meets the fourth Tuesday of each month at 4 p.m. at the 911 Center; the meetings are open to the public.

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