One day, possibly in the summer of 2008, the cramped old elementary school being used for Fairfax County's police and fire communications will just be a memory. For the call-takers and dispatchers who work there now, that day can't come soon enough.
The road to a shiny new state-of-the-art communications center was started on Monday morning with a groundbreaking ceremony at the site on West Ox Road just north of Lee Highway (Route 29). In addition to Fairfax police and fire, the center will house the county's emergency operations center as well as dispatchers for the Virginia State Police and the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Law enforcement and government officials said the 130-acre site should become a model for other areas looking to combine their key communications in one spot. Fairfax's center also will eventually house bus maintenance facilities for Metro and the Fairfax Connector, as well as the regional barracks for the state police.
County Executive Anthony H. Griffin said the communications and emergency center is scheduled to open in November 2007, but another four to six months will be needed to finish wiring and testing the technology in the building. He said the current police and fire dispatch center, on Woodburn Road in Annandale, will be maintained as an emergency backup and operate parallel to the new center until it is functioning properly. The current emergency operations center, in the county Government Center, also will remain as a backup and for various training activities.
"We're clearly in a different age now," Griffin said. "It used to be we would worry about a hurricane every 30 years. But in this day and age, we've got snipers, anthrax, Hurricane Isabel. The potential of something happening on a regional basis requires we have a higher state of readiness."
When disaster strikes, police, fire and transportation agencies typically are at the heart of a government's response. Of combining them in one place, Griffin said, "We've had to push pretty hard to make it happen. It's like herding cats, to some extent. But it will be a real advantage to have all the parties together."
County Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said having "stovepipe operations," in which each agency operates independently, "just wasn't helpful. Getting people talking in one place creates a synergy that really makes for a much more successful enterprise."
Development of the complex is scheduled in phases up to 2025. The first phase is the communications center, formally called the Public Safety and Transportation Operations Center. The construction cost of the first phase is estimated at $122.5 million, including $102.5 million for county functions and $20 million for state police and transportation functions.
The Virginia Department of Transportation plans to start building a second facility in 2008 to house its Northern Virginia district offices and the state police. VDOT's Smart Traffic Center, where technicians monitor and adjust such things as signals, will be located in the communications center. The maintenance and construction operations currently on West Ox Road will be moved elsewhere.
Lt. Curtis Bailey of the state police said troopers were looking forward to the new center "because we work so closely with both the police and VDOT." He also said state police are installing a new dispatch system statewide, built by Motorola, that will allow any trooper to communicate with any other trooper in Virginia and with any other agency that chooses to use the same system.
Fairfax has not decided whether its own new dispatch system, which had a rough launch last year, will be installed in the new center, Griffin said. The Altaris computer-aided dispatch system is built by Northrop Grumman, and after many crashes and information problems initially, officials said it has operated more smoothly in recent months.
"We're reviewing all of that," Griffin said. "It's quite possible we'll go with the current, state-of-the-art system [in 2007], versus what we have in the 911 center now. That's being examined right now."
For more information and project updates, visit www.fairfaxcounty.gov/westox.