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How El Paso County 911’s new PSAP center changed their response to crisis

When discussing public safety agency infrastructure, we often think of the call-takers and dispatchers who staff the center, along with the tools and technologies they use. But what about the importance of the buildings these agencies are housed in? In this episode, Scott Calderwood, director of El Paso County 911 District, discusses the planning that went into their new PSAP center and how it enabled them to better respond to a mass shooting.

JW: Hi, and thanks for tuning into Public Safety Now on Hexagon Radio. I’m your host, John Whitehead, vice president of sales for U.S. Public Safetyfor Hexagon’s Safety and Infrastructure division. Today, we have a conversation with Scott Calderwood, and I’m excited to bring Scott in as a guest. His new role now is director of El Paso Communications. It’s been awesome, some of the things that they have done over the last several years as they’ve gone from their downtown location through the planning phase and opening up their new 911 communications center—as you’re going to hear him talk here in just a little bit, I think it’s much more than that.

In my background, I remember when we were redoing our comm center, it was kind of fun, right? You know, we called the local contractor in, and we knew we’re going to get a fresh coat of paint, some new tiles, some new carpet on the walls, maybe a new door, too. And the conversation really went more to just, how would you build an office? And since that time, in talking to Scott, I’ve realised there’s actually a science behind it. So, I’m excited today to talk to him about that, and we’re going to go down that road and hopefully talk about a few other things that are of interest here as we talk about how well that planning turned out for some of their major incidents. Scott, welcome, and thank you for joining us.

SC:  Thanks, John.

JW:  Hey, Scott, before we jump into all the details, tell me a little bit about your background. How did you get where you are? And, by the way, congratulations! I know you’ve just recently been named director there in El Paso 911, so congratulations on that promotion. But can you tell us a little bit about how you got where you’re at?

SC:  So, I started public safety as a firefighter for the El Paso Fire Department. I worked there for over 25 years and retired as a deputy chief. The last three or four years, my assignment was as the emergency management coordinator for the city and county of El Paso. It’s kind of a separate office, but it’s managed by El Paso Fire. That was really the transition that kind of led me into the 911 world. When you’re in the emergency-management world, you really get exposed to just about everything. It’s amazing how much emergency management really affects and touches and has to interact with. And so, I kind of got introduced to 911 through that.

Our emergency operations center was co-located with the dispatch center at our old facility downtown. I became interested in 911, and knowing that I needed another career after fire, kind of taught myself a little bit of 911. Mary, my previous director, was kind enough to bring me on board. And then, five years working for the El Paso County 911 district, I’ve taken over as director.

JW:  Nice. Well, once again, congratulations. That’s 30 years in the emergency-service industry. Boy, you’ve seen a lot of changes as well, then, over the years I’m assuming, huh?

SC:  I really have. Especially in the 911 world, we’re at a really interesting time right now, as you know, from when I first came on. They were just answering phones and really taking calls on pen and paper. So, I kind of got in before we even had computers.

JW:  Yeah, it’s interesting where you can go in just a short time. And we’ve had numerous conversations here about the technologies and the tools that are available for 911. As I started my career back in the ’90s, looking at where we were and where we’re at today, it is just amazing. You’re right. I mean, I’ve got agencies that I talk to, that I remember all across the U.S., when we’d go in and sit there and talk to them, they’d say, “We don’t have computers,” or “I’m training my dispatchers on how to use a mouse because they’ve been using paper and pencil and punch cards to keep times, and that’s what they’re familiar with.” And now you fast forward to where we’re at today, and it’s just a whole different world when it comes to 911 and the emergency services in general.

SC:  It is. I mean, you point out, I remember when we got the first computers in the stations, and they told these firefighters that they were going to be making their reports on computer. That led to the retirement of a whole generation of people, just on that.

And then, you fast forward to where we are now, and technology started to move at light speed just about 10 years ago. And that’s our challenge in 911 right now is to try and keep up with how fast these technologies are moving.

JW:  Yeah, and that’s an interesting point because you’re right. As 911 professionals, we always want the right tools at the right time for that next call. But keeping up with that sometimes can be a daunting tale. I think that that is probably one of the things as I talk to people that… I don’t want to say keeps directors like yourself up at night, but it’s definitely got to be in the planning stages. It’s definitely got to be part of that process is, we don’t want to be too far on that bleeding edge, if you will, but we have to stay cutting edge to be able to give the population and the people what they need and what they expect out of the 911 center.

SC:  That’s our challenge. That’s what does keep directors up at night.

JW:  Yeah, so that’s… The reason for this conversation is, because that’s really where my mind’s been, is that software and hardware and the items that you need— the telephony pieces, the reporting and analytics— that’s really been the focus, right? How do we keep and provide those tools to our first responders and make sure that they have those tools?

And then, I started seeing what El Paso was doing, and, more specifically, what you were doing, Scott, in the planning stages for your new 911 center. And once you guys opened up the doors and you went live at that 911 center, I remember my first visit down there, I actually walked away with some notes that I was actually amazed—I had no idea the same type of thought process needed to go into facilities. We’ve talked about facility security on here, and the importance of that and some of that stuff. But I’m talking the actual facility itself.

So, that’s really kind of the next thing I wanted… I really just want to go down, Scott, is just hear a little bit of background about maybe some of the planning stages and things that you guys decided to take into consideration before just throwing up some lights and some walls within a new center.

SC:  Well, so, when we’re talking about facilities, we talk about being interoperable all the time—getting everybody on common radio stations, getting everybody on common platforms where they can communicate. But we tend to think about that in a silo of our own agency. We tend to think about that in terms of 911 or in terms of public safety. So, when we built this facility… and let me back up a little bit. Having the background of being an emergency manager and then having people in our agency that understood 911—I had Mary Kozak as my mentor, and she had over 40 years of 911 experience—so, when we got together to plan this building, we wanted to build a facility that would allow for interoperability and local control of any emergency or disaster.

And so, that was kind of the overall starting point or the vision, if you will, of our facility. We wanted to ensure that if there was something going on that not only did we have all of the technologies to communicate, but really, until you have all of the players, all of the people in one place, that’s where you really get interoperability, that face-to-face communication. So, that was kind of the vision from the very beginning was, who needed to be included in the building, and how could we set up the building to make it the epicenter for local control?

JW:  Yeah. So, give me some examples. Of course, the call-taking and call-handling for the 911 center, but then EOC. Give me some other examples. What else was considered in that thought process?

SC:  Well, like I said, coming from an emergency-management background, I had a really good idea of what we needed when we had some sort of an emergency or a disaster. An emergency operations center is basically an intelligence-gathering entity. But some of the best intel that you can gather comes from your dispatch center. I mean, your telecommunicators are… they’re getting reports directly from the public, and they’re also in communication with the men and women on the street. They’re the police and fire, so they’ve got a wealth of intel.

And so, another thing that I did notice when we did our emergency operations was, we, just locally speaking here in El Paso, were missing a law-enforcement intel part. And often, we were missing the police, the PD function in our emergency operations center. So, we wanted to bring in… The police department here has a fusion center. It’s kind of an intelligence-gathering and -sharing entity that’s made up of local, state and federal law-enforcement representatives. I made a pitch to the police chief here to bring that into the center, and he agreed. So, when we built our center, we put the emergency operations center in there, we brought in the police department’s fusion center, and then, we had our dispatch center. We felt with those three, we really had a core for great intel gathering and sharing.

JW:  And it’s interesting because when you say, “interoperability and common platform”, you’re right. I think myself, probably a lot of people listening to this, immediately went to the, “Yeah, we must have radios that we can all talk together on, and I have to be able to pass calls within the 911 software over to the mobiles that are responding. What about my neighboring agencies doing mutual aid?” But it’s interesting when you say this interoperability common platform, you’re taking it to a whole other level. And I think that was really the part that intrigued me was, whether it is the fusion center or the EOC 911 center, put in the facilities to where all of those agencies, normally set up separately around a city or a county, can be interoperable—and I’ll overuse that word—within the same building. And I think that’s a great way of looking at it.

SC:  Yeah. We really wanted to kind of build that platform. And back to your point. You can have everybody on a common radio frequency, but you can overload that common radio frequency. And so, where you’re going to get your communication, really, is just having decision-makers all in the same building, or at least within a short distance.

JW:  Yeah, so you guys set up the plan to make sure you had all of that within a short distance, if you will, so I can pass along data and we can all work together. I know that you’ve also put in places for media, to where the media had a place, and you guys could hold a media type of event—of course, the administrative offices and support and that type of stuff. So, the center is amazing just in and of itself and what you guys kind of thought as far as having them in the room.

But now, I guess the other part then is, whenever we walked into the 911 center, and I’m going to say the sciences behind what you did, but from the moment you walk into your 911 center, it feels different. I jokingly said, when I was helping redo our center, new carpet, putting up a wall, putting in some doors, we went down to the local Lowe’s type of place or Home Depot, if you will, and said, “Hmm, I wonder which florescent lights we should put in the ceiling. Oh, these look pretty decent, and these fit in the budget.” Again, ’90s, that’s what we did as far as the thought process we went through. I flipped a switch, and the light comes on.

Tell us a little bit about the sciences and what you guys did for just in the 911 center itself and for your employees there.

SC:  When we built the facility… and just to give people kind of an idea, this is a 100,000 square foot building, so it is quite substantial. If you’re going to build a building, and you want to be able to use it for an emergency operations center, 99-plus percent of the time, the designed functionality of that building is not going to be used. So, we stressed multi-purpose. We have several large board rooms. We have an auditorium. We have multi-purpose training facilities that, during our day to-day use, are used by local government and public safety entities for trainings and such. But we designed all of those to become part of the emergency operations center.

So, the entire building, although it’s multi-purpose, was designed to transition during a disaster into a functioning emergency operations center. We did see that when we had our latest activation. We had over 300 people respond to the building, and we were able to absorb them pretty easily.

JW:  Yeah. And for those of you that are listening and paying attention, I think you’re talking about, on August 3, here just a few months ago, the mass shooting that occurred at the Walmart there in El Paso. It’s just a devastating event that that type of thing can happen, and we hate to hear that kind of news. But the first thing that I thought of when I was sitting here and the news report comes on was, this is where all of this thought process that you put into your building is going to come into play. So, within a year after go-live or opening up this new center, now you have this large incident. So, tell us a little bit about the results on that side. How did that work out for you whenever everyone now had to come under the same roof to work an incident of that magnitude?

SC:  So yeah, when you have an incident of that magnitude, it’s going to test anybody’s capabilities. We’re not unique in that situation. We got tested pretty significantly, but the building performed as designed. And that was pretty exciting to me. I know it’s a terrible incident, but it was really nice to see that all of the planning and things that we put into the building were actually working as designed.

JW:  So, EOC was set up, and all of a sudden, you have emergency management and all types of different law-enforcement personnel there in your building. Was there anything that kind of stands out as far as whenever it kind of clicked in your mind, “Okay, this is exactly the way we saw these large-scale events going down”? Was there any one thing at any time period when it kind of clicked for you that this was working, or were you just wrapped into the event?

SC:  I initially responded almost immediately after hearing that, because I knew that the EOC would be activated. And so, there were quite a few people from the EOC staff and the people that first get notified to respond there. They were making requests. Okay, so we need a place for PD to set up their command post, and we have a place for it. Hey, we’ve got this conference room that’s set up for that. The media is arriving. We have a place to house the media, where they can walk into the lobby, walk into the board room, they can set up there. It’s sizable, and we can also do our press conferences in the same room. We can get VIPs in and out of that room without going through the media.

Every time they were making a request, “Hey, we need to set up this or we need to do that”, we had a space for it, or we had planned for it. Never once did the emergency-management staff have a need that, facility-wise, we were not prepared to meet. That’s when I knew that things were working right.

JW:  Yeah. That’s a great testament to the work in the planning that went into that building. From a dispatcher point of view, I mean, I’m sitting in the room, my stress level’s up, I’ve got multiple calls probably coming in, and all of the things that are happening. And yet, in some agencies, the way we design them, there’s a… I’m going to say an interruption. I don’t mean it to sound as negative as it does, but all of a sudden, executives with the city or the county come walking through. They’re going to the EOC, or they’re pulling manuals, or they’re setting up this room, and they’re doing all of these things. And it can be disruptive, right, because it’s out of the norm. So, in your center, your 911 personnel, whether they’re call-taking or dispatching, all of these other actions are happening, but yet they stay in their area and do their job. Is that the way that it functioned?

SC:  Yeah. We’ve set the building up with what I call adjacencies. The call floor is directly across the hall from the emergency operations center because they need to be adjacent during a disaster, but they’re also isolated. The entire north side of the building is designed to be emergency management, intelligence-type functions, and it’s separated from the call floor, but it’s close enough that the two sites can inter-operate. So, the telecommunicators, even though they’re distracted by a large-scale incident, are not affected by the hundreds of people that are flowing into the building. They really don’t even notice.

JW:  Yeah, that is so nice. And that is, I think, the coolest thing about when I walked into your building, the way it was laid out and the floor plan. And all of this thought process that really goes down to, let my dispatchers, let my call-takers… For that matter, let people in the EOC, let the media, let everybody do what they do best and not be stepping over each other and get in each other’s way and interrupting workflows. Those incidents have got to be stressful enough. But yet, your dispatchers, your call-takers, in the height of all of this, and in the height of the number of calls that are coming in, they didn’t have to deal with someone setting up an EOC right next door and banging chairs and getting stuff ready. You guys had those things segregated, which is just a great, like I said, testament to the planning stage there.

SC:  It goes even farther, onto the call floor. The call floor has about a hundred positions on it, and that includes call-taking; city, police and fire dispatching; county call-taking; county dispatching for sheriff’s office; city 311; and several other functions. So, it’s a pretty sizable floor, but we built the floor to be able to expand in a disaster. We normally run about… I’d say our average is about 10 call-takers on the city side. And during this incident, we were able to double the number of call-takers. Within less than 45 minutes, we had doubled from 10 to 19 call-takers, and we already have the positions built for them to flow into. They don’t have to do anything special. They just recall off-duty people. They come in, they sit down, they log on, and they’re taking calls. That’s kind of a preplanning thing.

The police department has additional workstations, and they went from eight to 13 dispatchers in a short period of time. We have an overflow auxiliary pod that’s designed to be used by some of our smaller agencies when they need to bug out, but it’s also got a dual purpose. In this particular case, that particular auxiliary pod became a police-department pod. And they don’t need to do anything special either there. They come in and they log on to their CAD system, and they… Based on their username, they’re presented with the view of CAD that they’re always used to seeing. So, we were really happy that the functionality on the call floor, both in design and technologically, was able to expand with no problems.

JW:  Man, that is so nice, especially in an incident like this where all of a sudden you’ve just got multiple calls coming in, and now you’ve got this thing set up, and everyone is able to come in, handle the incidents that are coming in, handle what I’ll say overflow of calls that are coming in. As you’re sitting here talking, I’m hearing the deputy chief in you, right? It’s all about preplanning. It sounds like there was probably some tabletop drills and a lot of thought that went into, what if this and what if that? As they say, “The proof is in the pudding”, right? No agency’s ever expecting a mass shooting. It’s just an uncomfortable reality of the world that we’re in, though. And it sounds like you guys were ready for what happened that day.

SC:  So, one of the things that we did that kind of in hindsight was really a great idea is, when we were still in the planning stages, when we had the blueprints of the building, I would mentally walk the building as an employee. You know, today I am a call-taker, and mentally walk the building all the way from… I parked my car here, and I would try and envision, “I walk in this door. This is where I need to go first. I need to go to my… I need to hit the time clock. I need to go to my day locker. I need to go to my shift meeting room.” So, we would plan everybody’s day, but we also planned big events on paper. And in fact, we even threw a timeout in the planning process to give us more time.

It is so easy to make a change when you’ve got a drawing in front of you rather than after you’ve already put some walls up. If you want to make a change in that drawing, it’s going to cost you pennies. If you want to make a change after you’ve put a wall up, it’s going to cost you tens of thousands of dollars. So, we actually took a two-month timeout to make sure that we had what we wanted. I know a lot of jurisdictions don’t have the luxury of taking that time, but I think that that’s essential, and I think that taking the time when you’re in that planning stage is going to pay dividends in the long run.

JW:  Yeah. And I think that that’s the preplanning aspect, right? The walkthroughs, making sure that we’re accounting for all situations and the what ifs that go into that. It sounds like there was some good ideas there. And if we keep going with the day and how that workflow went, after that incident, then, as anyone paying attention to the media knows, you had a presidential visit now. And so, you mentioned a 100,000 square foot facility. And one of the things you didn’t mention, though, is you’ve got a sally port to where vehicles can actually drive in, in the back. You were telling me a little bit about, and if you can share this publicly, some of the things that happened and how well it worked out to have the president, actually, at your facility. Can you discuss how that happened?

SC:  Sure. I tell you, that’s pretty exciting. If you’ve never had a president come into your facility, that’s two or three days of craziness that’s pretty fun. So, we did have the Secret Service Advanced Team come to El Paso and say that the president wanted to visit, and they were looking around for a place for him to visit. And after touring our facility, they decided that they wanted to do it right here. So, we were pretty excited. But, it’s quite an endeavor when the president comes in. They have every second of his visit planned. And the entourage that travels with him, there’s 100 people in that entourage. It’s pretty crazy.

So, yeah, we do have a sally port. We have a place where large vehicles can actually drive in. We store communications-related command posts and such. So, we were able to drive the president inside the building, close the door, and have him secured, and the Secret Service was thrilled with that. But I can’t take credit for that in the planning. That’s just a happy accident.

JW:  Yeah, because what we’re not telling you is… Because there’s some people I think listening to this that says, “Well, it must be nice, El Paso. You’re building from the ground up. You can plan this whole thing the way you want it.” For those, if you didn’t catch it at the beginning, though, this was a pre-existing building. So, what you had was that garage area, if you will, was already part of the building, and then you guys incorporated that into your floor plan as you were gutting the old and rebuilding the new, right?

SC:  It’s a 100,000 square foot manufacturing facility, and we did gut it completely. And actually, that is there… It’s 20,000 square feet, but it’s actually future growth. It’s more of the planning to make sure that this building is viable for the next 20 years. There’s 20,000 square feet of unfinished floor space that we can use. Much like we planned years’ worth of growth into the call floor, we’ve planned years’ worth of growth into the building.

JW:  Well, it worked out well. You know, President Trump could just drive in, park his vehicle right there, and head on in the media room. So, it sounds like a lot of that planning and even having that open area there worked out well for you guys.

SC:  We had the president here. We had Governor Abbott from Texas. We had him here twice. We had Senator Cruz. We had every local official, every local elected official in our county came over here, and we actually had a place for them as well. We had a room designed, during that disaster to put dignitaries.

JW:  Boy, that is great. Like I said, it all goes back to the work and the preplanning that you and the staff did there to make sure you guys had what you need.

In hindsight, Scott, was there anything, though, that you guys wish you’d have done differently? Did you find anything that you said, “Boy, I wish we’d have done this,” and, “That would have really helped us prepare for this type of an event”?

SC:  Not really. From our perspective, we were thrilled with how well our systems worked, how well our building performed. Of course, we had a parking problem, but that’s going to be beyond our control. But, no, we were very, very pleased.

JW:  Man, that is a great position to be in. That is a great answer.

And okay, before we go, I tried pulling it out of you earlier, and you didn’t hit on it. So, I’m just going to ask it. You’ve got to talk about those cool lights that you put into that dispatch center.

SC:  So, one of the things that we did do was, when we were building this center, we understood how difficult it is to be a telecommunicator. And coming from the fire side over here to 911, I have a new respect for dispatchers and the job that they do. It’s incredible. They work long hours, they’re tethered to a computer, they get short breaks. And so, they end up sitting in one place for a really long time. In our old center, the lights were… They were rather dingy, and people really didn’t have an idea of even what time of day it was. I had heard people say before that they walked outside and it was super bright, and they thought it was nighttime. They ended up working a double shift, 16 hours or something.

So, we wanted to put a lot of amenities into the building to just kind of help create a healthy environment for employees. And so, one of the really unique things that we did is, we have very tall ceilings on the call floor, which helps. They’re 24-foot tall ceilings. And they have, if you will, they’re light clouds. They are sections that have lighting, and they’re at different levels throughout. We incorporated skylights, but they’re very diffuse. You really don’t even notice that they’re there. We change the lights in the center every two hours. It runs on a program. So, every two hours, the lights either get brighter or dimmer. They start getting brighter throughout the day to kind of mimic the circadian rhythm of the sun. About 5:00 or 6:00 in the evening, they start to get darker until about 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning.

And it does a couple of things. One, like I said, it kind of lets people have an idea of what is it like outside… What is the time of day? It keeps them in rhythm with what’s going on. And the second thing is, is it gives them kind of an environmental refresh. So, every couple of hours, the lights change. And we did read some studies on this. There were some studies that suggested that employee productivity increased following a change in the ambient light of their environment for about a 30-minute period. So, when we read that, we liberally applied our own interpretation that what is causing them to… must be something making them feel good about themselves, whether the light got brighter or dimmer. And so, we just decided that we would vary the lights throughout the day.

It seems to work really well. I’ve had very little, if any, complaints about lighting in the call center, when in our old facility, I probably fielded about 10 a day of those.

JW:  I got to tell you, I had to bring it up because I think it is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. You’re sitting there telling me about the circadian rhythm, and I’m going back to my days as a dispatcher where we used to fight, “Should the lights be on or should the lights be off?” And now all of a sudden, you’re taking it to a whole other level now, working with your personnel’s internal clock and their natural rhythm throughout the day. I mean, it’s just a neat type of aspect to be able to put into the center.

And it’s that next thing to be able to show the dispatchers that, you know what? You guys have got a tough job, and you’re in there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even on holidays. There’s no time to go over there and just relax. Let’s go ahead and see if we can put these types of things in there. They just naturally make it a more pleasant environment to be in, too. And I got to tell you, just standing in that room, there’s just a different feel and a different aspect to the 911 center, which is really cool.

SC:  We tried to do a few other things. We filter the air in there. There are carbon-dioxide sensors in there. If the air level gets out of our standard, it brings in fresh air from the outside. We pipe in a measured amount of white noise. We really try to address the acoustics. I don’t know if you remember when we stand there, you can have a normal conversation anywhere in the building and you’re not disturbing anybody. So, we just tried to make that environment unique. Plus, aesthetically, also, we really wanted to make it look good, so we put some really neat stuff in there, too.

JW:  Yeah, Scott, you guys did a great job, and you know what? I do need to just say congratulations to Mary Kozak. You mentioned her and the years and years of service that she gave to El Paso and to the emergency-service community. She just recently retired, so congratulations to Mary. We wish her the best as she goes, and that she is able to, hopefully, relax a little bit.

Scott, I’ve said it once, but I’ll say it again. Congratulations on being named the new director there at the El Paso County 911 district. And I really just want to thank you for being our guest today. A lot of cool stuff that El Paso’s doing. And again, even in the midst of tragedy, I hate to hear that that happened, but it sounds like if you have to find any type of a bright spot in this dark, dark type of incident, it was the preplanning and the thought that you and the staff put into the center and how well it works. So, again, thank you for being our guest today here, Scott.

For those of you listening, to hear additional episodes or learn more, visit us at hxgnspotlight.com, and thanks for tuning in.