ERWIN — Officials in Unicoi County have taken another step in the relocation of the county’s 911 dispatch center from its location in downtown Erwin.
On Tuesday, the Unicoi County Emergency Communications District Board unanimously approved a motion to relocate the center and equipment to a storage shed at the Unicoi Jail Annex on Jackson-Love Highway after necessary renovations are completed at the annex.
The move of the center, as well as the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department’s administrative offices, has been the subject of discussion at a number of county meetings. The need for the move was addressed at a September meeting of the emergency communications district board, at which Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley said the roof of the Unicoi County Jail, located directly above the dispatch center and his department’s administrative offices, is prone to leaking. The additional water also finds its way downstairs as inmates stop up drains and commodes in the jail.
On top of the possible health hazard the flooding presents to sheriff’s department employees and dispatchers, Hensley said the state-mandated upgrades to the county’s 911 equipment enhance concerns as leaking water could damage the new equipment.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Hensley reiterated past statements that it is imperative his department’s offices and the 911 dispatch center remain as close together as possible.
“We all know what we’re up against,” he said. “The way we operate in Unicoi County, it’s crucial that we stay together.”
In January, engineering firm Tysinger, Hampton and Partners was hired to complete an environmental study on the administrative offices and dispatch center. This study found that mold spore counts inside the building were adequate, but found the existence of coliform bacteria. While engineer Gary Tysinger previously told officials the issue was manageable, it could continue to be a problem.
On several occasions, county officials have visited the jail annex to evaluate the prospects of moving the offices and center to the facility. Last last month, the Unicoi County Commission voted to hire Tysinger, Hampton and Partners to complete a feasibility study looking at various components of moving the offices to the annex. This study will include costs associated with a renovated annex to prepare for the move.
Officials have set their sights on a shed at the annex currently used by MedicOne Medical Response, the county’s ambulance provider, to house ambulances and equipment as the new home for the dispatch center.
Hensley said the annex should be a good site for the dispatch center for several years and that there is room to expand if needed.
“We’re not only looking at moving 911 out there, we’re looking at moving the complete sheriff’s office out there,” Hensley said. “Half of that building is going to be used by the investigators, and there will be an evidence room there, and it’s going to require some work there, also. Of course, that part I’ll have to bring to the County Commission, but right now this is, in my opinion and I have a lot of other opinions, they agree, this is the best route to go.”
Current plans call for the shed area to be reinforced to house the dispatch center. According to a first draft of the floor plan, a lobby at the front of the shed would be installed and would be located adjacent to the dispatch center, which would be located in an approximately 23-foot-by-22-foot area. Computer equipment for the dispatch center would be housed in a separate room measuring approximately 18 feet by 11 feet. The tentative floor plan also calls for the installation of a file room, restrooms, mechanical areas and office space.
Tysinger told officials this plan is fluid, and he is working on another draft of the floor plan.
It was initially believed the state-mandated upgrades to the 911 equipment would need to be installed by the middle of the year, but county officials learned Wednesday they are not as “under the gun” as first thought. Curtis Sutton with the Tennessee Emergency Communications Board was in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting, and advised county officials that while a relocation of the county’s 911 center is necessary to provide the necessary space for the “next generation” 911 system to be hooked up, he said there is not a set deadline for the move. Sutton said the county just needs to advise the state board if the new equipment is ready to be utilized or if the county will continue to use the current connection “trunks.”
“It doesn’t matter if you’re here or you’re there,” Sutton said to officials. “Just tell us where you’re going to be and tell us how you want to connect, and that’s fine. Obviously, you can’t connect over here and you probably won’t be ready by, I think, it’s July 1 or something like that to move out there. So all you have to do is say ‘We’re going to use our old trunks over here’ and that will be fine.”
Sutton said the county needs to provide the state board with this information by the first of April.
Following the meeting, Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said it is unlikely the County Commission will consider the county’s emergency communications district board’s recommendation when it meets this Monday, as he does not expect cost estimates from the Tysinger, Hampton and Partners study to be in. He said once those estimates are in, next steps include deciding how the county will fund the relocation and putting the project out for bid.
“So it’s a pretty long, drawn-out process,” Lynch said.