While the potential move from the current 911 Center along Boot Jack Road in Ridgway Township to the borough at the Industrial Technical Education Center [ITEC] facility has raised questions, officials are insisting the move is a good one.
"With our move to the ITEC facility, it's obviously a good choice and a good move to make," said Michael A. McAllister, director of Elk County's emergency services office. "There is some skepticism out there in the public questioning why we have to move and we're being told that what we have is fine and that we don't need any of this."
The county's 911 Center was previously situated in the basement of the courthouse for a number of years, as it only covered a few municipalities well before McAllister's time at the helm.
In 1990, the six-county region was the recipient of a $5 million grant to upgrade its emergency medical services and the ambulance radio system that was in place.
"When we did that, we had to find a piece of property up here on Boot Jack [Road] for a tower site because our existing one just wasn't able to hold the new equipment," McAllister said.
The result was a ranch-style house situated on approximately 13 narrow acres in Ridgway Township.
"The structure, the house, was here also, so the thinking was at that time that to get us out of the basement-- we were probably in a room no larger than twice the size of my office-- and we moved to this building thinking we'd only stay here for a year," McAllister said. "We put minimal money into it thinking we'd only use it for a year and then build a new facility."
That was roughly 19 years ago.
"The only modifications that we made to the building at that point was that this building had radiated heat and that system was no longer working," McAllister said. "We replaced it and changed out some of the lighting so that it would be adequate for what we're doing."
Three rooms were added in the back of the building to house electronics; the 911 Center is actually located in what used to be a garage.
"We've been able to support this for a number of years, but one of the things that the commissioners have probably already mentioned is that our heat bill for this building is higher than the [Elk County Courthouse] Annex just because it is not designed for 24-hour operations," McAllister said. "This building is blocks, so at night it cools down; during the day, it'll raise 20 degrees in the room-- when we come in in the morning it's cool and there's no continual temperature that's here with the block walls. That's been a big issue."
When the building modifications were first constructed, they met all the current standards for lightning protection with the electrical grounding at that time.
However, the facility is always struck by lightning, but sometimes the strike is such a hard hit that it feeds back into the building.
"And because of that we take out pieces of equipment," McAllister said. "After the last strike, we're probably looking at $60,000 in damage. We've had over $200,000 worth of damage and even though it's insurance, you still pay for insurance so it's still costing the county money every single time it happens.
"So now we're starting to look at this and we wonder how much money we want to put into the new standards for something that's not being used. An example that I keep using is that we're a bucket with holes in it that we keep pouring water into-- we never get ahead, we're always trying to catch up."
The facility's radio tower also creates an issue, as it is situated less than 10 feet from the back of the structure.
"With the tower location and the way the building is, we can get one to two inches of radio ice on this tower just from sleet, rain and snow," McAllister said. "If that breaks free-- we've already had to patch holes in our roof-- because if that comes down, it's like driving a spear through the roof, it melts and you have a hole there.
"You don't even want to be out back when it warms up after an ice storm because you have no idea where it's coming from-- you'll sit here and just hear it break across the roof. If you're standing out there, you could literally get killed."
The facility is now getting ready for "Next Generation 9-1-1 [NG9-1-1];" the new equipment coming in and the facilities now will not support the room needed or the power requirements without doing various costly modifications.
A consulting group did a study several months back to determine the best route for county officials to take regarding the current 911 Center, and making modifications to the current facility proved costly.
"If we'd remodel or redo this facility, then we have to bring this building all up to code," McAllister said. "We have a sand mound septic system up here; we're not on city sewage that I think basically stops at The Royal Inn.
"What our architects were telling us was that with the occupancy that we're truly supposed to be, if we would not be grandfathered and did the remodeling to get done what needed to be done, we would now have to spend the money to get the sewage line from The Royal Inn up to where we are just to stay here."
The cost was reportedly considerable and too much to bear.
"We looked at the 13 acres here and it's a very narrow piece of property; behind us is the power line that runs the length so you can't really do a whole lot behind us," McAllister said. "Because of that, we'd have to do a two-story building here and then we'd probably have to do PennDOT regulations for a turning lane because of the access to the facility.
"It's almost pretty much too cost-prohibitive to even build here with all these expenses."
County officials found that it was pretty much the same deal down the road in the industrial area near The Royal Inn.
"That was our intention, building a new facility down there to meet the need that we had for our program," McAllister said. "Then one day the commissioners called and asked if we would like to take a look at ITEC."
At first glance, McAllister deemed the layout of the ITEC facility as "almost perfect."
"There are very few modifications that are needed other than security doors and that building will meet our needs," McAllister said. "We have through our terrorism task force with six counties that are involved in that, we have a command trailer sitting out in front [of the current 911 Center].
"With the ITEC building, we won't have to build a garage anymore since it's already there. We have the ability to store this expensive equipment in a more secure location and in an environmentally-correct way."
The task force currently owns four of these trailers and is paying rent to store them at the airport in DuBois.
"This trailer covers Elk, Cameron and McKean counties so it needs to be up in this area," McAllister said. "There are a lot of nice benefits already in place at the ITEC building."
Parts of that facility will be used for other county agencies' materials as well.
"It's not just our building," McAllister said. "The majority of it will be utilized for our needs with some minor exceptions. One of the rooms that we're going to have is called 'continuity of government.'
If the courthouse, for example, or the Annex would flood-- a water main break and you can't reside there anymore-- the commissioners and key people will be able to continue to run the county government out of our office. There are some parts to that building that will be flexible for what we can use them for."
Officials hope to start doing construction and building modifications to the ITEC building sometime in July.
A raised floor for cables underneath will reportedly be used and security doors will be changed as well; the work is expected to last from roughly July until early September.
"In September, we'll start doing the electronics," McAllister said. "The computer network is all new because the technology to make everything work is that way.
"We'll put in the new computer network and the 911 furniture for the dispatchers, and consoles will also go in."
The phone system itself also has to be replaced. Officials recently received an 'end-of-letter' stating that their phone system is no longer being manufactured and within approximately one year, parts will no longer be maintained for the system.
"In this year's budget, funds are allotted to replace the phone system," McAllister said. "That phone system will go in with the new facility and not interrupt with any of ours that are here. We do have a data microwave for our internet between here and North Central right now, they provide our internet service.
"We'll either be able to use that or have to maybe do a T1 or a phone line to connect to here-- then we'll take three of our consoles and move them to the other building."
Officials hope to be up and running at ITEC by November.
"But nobody will be in it for about a month-- burning time to make sure that it'll stay up and running and any glitches will work their way out," McAllister said. "Ideally then the administrative side will move whenever and it'll be a Tuesday or something where one shift will come into here and we'll have another shift go to the new building, then when the shift is done, everything is run from the new facility. We'll then pull the bridge clips and it should be a smooth transition.
"Once we're in the new facility, we'll then move the three existing radio consoles over to the building. That's kind of the thought that we have so for a period of time, there will be two centers running where you could work out of either one."