Emergency relief: Overcrowded E-911 center gets room to breathe with new building

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Photo by Kristen Ralph

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Last September, when rain flooded the county, damaging hundreds of homes and leaving residents in peril, there was no way emergency coordinators could fit in the cramped 12-seat conference room dedicated for such jobs at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center.

Instead, they hurried to the county's fire headquarters to set up in training rooms.

Now, Gwinnett Emergency Management Director Greg Swanson knows his team has the room and the equipment to handle the roughest of circumstances.

Officials cut a ribbon Tuesday to officially open the county's new E-911 center and police annex, giving more than twice the room to 911 operators and 10 times the space to the emergency operations center.

"This building, make no mistake, is where public safety in the county starts," Chief Charles Walter said.

The 45,000-square-foot facility "symbolizes our commitment to public safety and maintaining law and order in Gwinnett County," Chairman Charles Bannister said.

Dispatchers moved to the new building, which is next door to the county police headquarters on Hi-Hope Road, last month, showing the project came in two months early and, at a price tag of $18.7 million, $1.3 million under budget.

Carrie Bennett, a shift supervisor for the communications division, said the new digs make for a better working environment.

After working for more than a decade in a cramped box at headquarters, having windows to see the sun rise over the snow on Saturday morning was a treat, she said.

"Now we can tell if it's raining or not," she said, pointing out that call volumes always increase in bad weather.

Angie Conley, the 911 center manager, said the extra space and the ability to add staff has helped to decrease the tension of the center, and for the past month, waiting times for callers has been close to zero.

Last week's plane crash, she said, was a hectic situation, but in the old facility, "the entire room would have been tense," because of the close confines, she said.

Swanson's team has already used the new emergency operations center, although last weekend's snow only called for a "monitoring" level of response.

If bad things happen, though, he knows he is better equipped to handle it. The building is constructed to Federal Emergency Management Agency shelter design standards, which means it can withstand winds from tornadoes and even an earthquake.

"It, in theory, will be the last building standing in Gwinnett," Swanson said. "We've truly built a facility that will withstand a natural disaster and will be able to help people (in those times)."

Officials said environmentally responsible approaches were also incorporated, including water-efficient landscaping, low-flow plumbing fixtures and digital HVAC controls.