By Audrey Fraizer
Just when the tempo might appear to be letting up, possibly signaling a break to continue a project set aside, something else comes knocking on the door.
So it all began in 2002 when Alameda County Fire and the Alameda City Fire Department took up permanent residency at the Lawrence-Livermore Fire Department dispatch center on property within the secure boundaries of the Lawrence-Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL).
Unknowingly at the time, the consolidation—creating the Alameda County Regional Emergency Communication Center (ACRECC) —kicked off a chain of events that this day continues to add links.
“The last 10 years have been all about change, constant change,” said Charles Berdan, ACRECC manager. “I was hoping we had reached a point of staying where we are, but I don’t think that will happen, at least for now.”
As it stands—as of this writing—the ACRECC has fire and EMS responsibility for 58 fire stations within Alameda County and the State of California, the dispatch and system status management for Paramedics Plus ALS ambulance service, and it is the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, Fire and Rescue Region II Mutual Aid Coordination Dispatch Center.
The ACRECC dispatched more than 160,000 events in 2012 and answered more than a quarter-million phone calls, making it one of the busiest fire dispatch centers in California. Alameda County has an area of 738 square miles and a population well over 1.5 million.
“I can’t say that I’ve been surprised with everything that has happened,” said Berdan, who brought with him 25 years of 9-1-1 experience from Sacramento Regional Fire/EMS Communications Center (starting as a dispatcher and spending the last 10 years as deputy director of Communications). “It certainly has been challenging.”
How it all started
Pivotal to the shape of things to come was a diminishing state economy and its effect on municipal public services in California. Fire department administrators found it increasingly difficult to fund communication center operations for cities building out toward their borders and stay afloat as firefighting agencies.
Like centers everywhere else, they were also facing the demands brought on by technology—such as Enhanced 9-1-1 and revenue shortfalls related to cell phone surcharges and decreasing landlines—and increasing use of interagency resources.
In the case specific to Alameda County, the idea of a regional communication system sprouted from the aftermath of the disastrous 1991 Oakland Hills fire and the inability of multiple agencies from neighboring jurisdictions to monitor each other’s communication/radio frequencies. In 1999, a consultant recommended using the LLNL existing dispatch center. The project was completed in 2002.
Tasks adding up
Berdan started as manager six months into the consolidation, “going live” in a process he had seen in Sacramento’s consolidation of 26 9-1-1 centers into the one he had managed. From a center formerly dispatching solely for LLNL, the ACRECC took in most communities within Alameda County (Dublin, San Leandro, Castro Valley, San Lorenzo, and Sunol; the Lawrence Livermore, Lawrence Berkeley, and Sandia National Laboratories; and all of unincorporated areas of Alameda County) and the Alameda City Fire Department (a formal agreement to extend the contract was signed in October 2012).
Aside from the immediate tasks at hand, Berdan’s responsibilities included the objective to achieve an Accredited Center of Excellence (ACE), granted by the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch (IAED), within the next 18 months.
Well, that didn’t happen, and for a list of very good reasons making the goal beyond their immediate reach, Berdan explained. Not in the least was an older CAD system unsuited to collect the data accreditation requires.
“The inability to extract data definitely held us up,” he said.
But data was not the only issue stemming the flow to ACE. Building upgrades and digital technology were also taking precedence. In 2003, the Camp Parks Combat Support Training Center joined ACRECC, but with only one fire station, the impact was minimal. The real shock—the one initiating the tremors to come—however, hit on the day in 2003 that the Fremont Fire Department knocked on the door requesting transfer of its 9-1-1 communication center to the ACRECC.
“That took us by surprise,” Berdan said. “We weren’t expecting it.”
After Fremont made the move—and in order of their appearance—came Union City, Newark, Emeryville, and the Livermore-Pleasanton fire department 9-1-1 operations.
Icing on the cake
The truly unexpected happened in 2011.
Paramedics Plus LLC, out of Texas, outbid American Medical Response (AMR) for ALS services in Alameda County. Unlike AMR, which afforded dispatch during its 21-year tenure, Paramedics Plus chose to defer the cost of providing ALS dispatch (and potential construction costs) by contracting services locally. ACRECC was the natural choice; the City of Oakland Fire Department Dispatch Center, also an EMD center and ACE, operates independently from the county.
“We were given six months to put the ALS plan in place,” Berdan said.
Berdan hired 13 dispatchers in the next three months and recruited eight “highly experienced” dispatcher volunteers from the floor to take on 180 hours of additional training to master the Paramedics Plus System Status Management and its CAD compatible software. The system incorporated into the center’s CAD monitors the status and location of regional fire resources, allowing agencies to send the closest and most appropriate resource to emergency calls.
That’s the much-simplified version. Four of the new hires left within three months and the new reality is finding employees willing and able to answer the constant stream of ambulance calls.
“The pace was more than some expected,” Berdan said.
Consolidations and the Paramedics Plus contract have tripled call volume since Berdan arrived 11 years ago, from about 50,000 calls dispatched/year to 160,000 calls dispatched/year. In 2012, the center answered calls from people speaking 20 different languages; excluding English, the majority spoke Spanish, Mandarin, and Cantonese. Three dispatchers speak fluent English and Spanish.
Staffing has increased from 12 to 39—manager (Berdan), 30 dispatchers, four supervisors, and four administrators (CAD administrator, GSI analyst, EMD Quality Assurance Manager, and an administrative assistant). Berdan keeps his workweek to five 10-hour days. He is at the teetering point of whether to hire an additional dispatcher for each shift to handle increasing phone volumes.
That’s not all
Juggled in between partnering and coordinating multi-agency fire and EMS communications, Berdan has directed the center’s complete remodeling (from four to 10 dispatch workstations) and the installation of a digital logging recorder and CAD system. All responders are on the same 800 MHz radio system. Region II Mutual Aid comprises 16 counties extending along the northern coast of California.
This year, ACRECC dispatchers organized National Telecommunicator Week festivities for the county. The major event—held at the Coliseum—featured “A Night in Tuscany” for the more than 300 dispatchers and significant others, and county fire and police officials present. Berdan steered clear of preparations.
“This is a banquet by dispatchers to honor dispatchers,” he said. “I don’t want to interfere.”
In 2012, ACRECC was selected Communications Center of the Year by the Northern California Chapter of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (NAPCO).
In 2007, the ACRECC had both an updated CAD system and medical ProQA. The switch gave them data-retrieval capacity and reignited the final steps required for achieving ACE status, which they did in 2008; three years later, in 2011, the regional center was reaccredited.
Mike Denton, a registered nurse and a county firefighter/paramedic, oversees the ACRECC EMD/QA program, which includes all things necessary for maintaining fire department and ACE compliance and standards. He and two part-time Qs, also county firefighters/paramedics, evaluate calls, give feedback, and provide the recommended course of action.
Berdan said ACE was essential to their goals.
“ACE gives validity,” he said. “We’re not just patting ourselves on the back. It’s an outside agency saying we meet the highest standards of dispatch.”
ACRECC staff arrives each day through a gate manned by armed guards and park their cars next to a building Berdan describes as duty-bound, not aesthetically pleasing. The type of research conducted at the lab—and the sensitive research involved —demand high levels of security. Berdan reports directly to Alameda County Fire Department Deputy Chief David Lord.
County objectives through the year 2017 call for the addition of new member agencies, meaning the already running out of space concrete center might be on its way out. More member agencies bring higher call volume and, consequently, require staffing increases.
Berdan seems to take it all in stride.
“I like the fact that I’m never bored,” he said. “I never come into the office without knowing there’s something to do.”