Rescuing 911 

Local 911 Emergency Communications District approves funding for new call center.

The Memphis Police Department's 911 dispatch office might be dicey in a large-scale emergency. Located in an upper floor of 201 Poplar, the office is particularly vulnerable to an earthquake or a downtown tornado.

If either of those natural disasters occurred, however, 911 services would be crucial. Last week, the local 911 Emergency Communications District board approved $21 million for the construction of a new disaster-proof, terrorist-proof joint Memphis/Shelby County call center.

"About four years ago, a tornado came through and took out the 911 call center in Jackson, Tennessee," says Henry Brenner, chairman of the 911 board's building committee. "We want to be sure this building is built to specifications where it won't be taken out by the nature of the beast."

Currently, various 911 dispatch centers are located in different buildings around the county, but the new center would bring the Memphis Police, the Memphis Fire Department, the Shelby County Sheriff's Office, and the Shelby County fire dispatch under one roof.

The call center would be located on 15 acres of land in Shelby Farms. The county plans to donate the property and build new roads leading to the center, but first the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission must each approve $7 million to pay for the $35 million facility.

The remaining $21 million of the funding comes from 16 years of monthly landline telephone fees. Residential accounts are charged 65 cents per month, while businesses pay $2 each month.

"This is what the vision was in 1994 when they started the 911 fee. That money was collected for the purpose of building this center," says interim Shelby County mayor Joe Ford.

Ford also hopes joining city and county dispatch centers in one facility will improve response times. Currently, only Memphis and Shelby County 911 dispatch centers have plans to move into the building, though Millington has expressed some interest in having a back-up call center in the facility.

In 2004, former Memphis mayor Wyeth Chandler suffered a heart attack in his front yard. Confusion between Bartlett and the county's first responders caused an ambulance to arrive too late to save him. Because Germantown, Collierville, and Bartlett each operate their own call centers, it's unlikely the new call center will make much difference in similar situations.

But the new center might reduce jurisdictional confusion between Memphis and Shelby County, and, according to Brenner, a larger space will create a better working environment for 911 dispatchers.

"There will be more harmony. It'll be a much bigger place to work, and logistically, it's in a better location," Brenner said. "Right now, the Memphis police are working on top of each other."

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