Bringing Safety Under One Roof

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008

A glass-front lobby. A state-of-the-art crime lab. Two enormous video walls that can each show 58 pictures, including live feeds that display traffic humming along -- or not -- on major roadways in Northern Virginia.

All are prominent features of the $131.5 million public safety and transportation center off West Ox Road and the Fairfax County Parkway, unveiled at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday. Once it is fully operational, the center will combine Fairfax County's 911 services, Virginia State Police, the Virginia Department of Transportation's traffic management center and other agencies into one high-tech complex.

The facility is a far cry from the retrofitted elementary school and basement offices that many workers have occupied for years. The aim, officials said, is not only to upgrade aging facilities. By housing various state and county offices under one roof, they hope to improve communications among agencies that often come together during emergencies, whether relatively minor traffic crashes or major incidents such as a hurricane or a terrorist attack.

"By combining our resources and talent, the local and regional and state agencies that will be collected here will be able to provide more comprehensive and efficient responses for our shared residents," Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said.

Construction on the center began in 2005, three years after voters authorized a $29 million bond toward planning. Although county leaders were concerned when the full cost was revealed, the complex came in under budget, officials said last week. One reason, they said, was the decision to combine forces with the state, which contributed about $20 million toward the project.

In some ways, the 250-acre project is a symbol of the area's larger transformation. Northern Virginia has become a hub for the defense industry, and during Friday's ceremony, some speakers emphasized that the area remains a potential target for terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.

"We forget very quickly what happened in this country. Just a few years back, we were attacked viciously by terrorists," said former county supervisor Elaine N. McConnell (R-Springfield), who retired last year. "We can't let that happen again without being prepared. . . . This is one of the biggest steps, I think, toward that preparation."

Officially called the McConnell Public Safety and Transportation Operations Center, the complex was named for the former supervisor, who was instrumental in pushing the project forward.

It is also a significant physical step, especially for Fairfax. For years, the county's 911 center, the state's largest, has been housed in a renovated elementary school in Annandale -- not ideal for the area's largest jurisdiction. VDOT's transportation operation center, which monitors and manages traffic across the region, has operated from an aging building in Arlington County.

The sleek, 114,000-square-foot building includes an expansive emergency room, with about 100 phones and a video wall made up of 10 80-inch television screens. Windows in a main corridor look down on the cavernous operations floor, where VDOT, state police and 911 operators will work in a large shared space. Another video wall in the room will display live feeds from VDOT's roadway cameras.

Also on the premises is a Fairfax police forensics lab, which consolidates three departments and eventually will include a DNA analysis section. The property includes a bus maintenance and storage yard that officials said will allow the county and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to improve bus service in the region. Eventually, as people are phased in over the next two years, about 300 state and county employees will work out of the 24-hour-a-day facility.

Officials emphasized the value of close communication even during routine emergencies. For example, VDOT can leverage its ability to control traffic lights to help Fairfax emergency vehicles reach a location more quickly, they said. Cameras on police helicopters can help the fire department monitor a flood or a fire.

"Last year, [locally based] troopers were dispatched to more than 120,000 incidents within the region, and rarely did these incidents just involve the state police," Lt. Colonel Robert Northern, deputy superintendent of the Virginia State Police, said at Friday's ceremony. "We have all been working together for many years. This is not something new. The [center] simply provides the vehicle for us to do it in a more efficient and effective capacity."

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