Beyond 9-1-1: Exploring the scope of emergency management in Chatham County

By Gene Galin

Pittsboro, NC – In the heart of Chatham County, nestled in a state-of-the-art facility, stands the Emergency Operations Center. During the grand opening event on October 27, Mr. Newton, Chatham’s Emergency Management Director, shed light on the critical differences between emergency communications and emergency management, the challenges faced over his six-year tenure, and the impressive redundancies built into the new emergency operations center building.

Emergency Communications vs. Emergency Management

When many people hear about emergency response, their minds immediately jump to 9-1-1 and the public safety answering point. However, emergency management encompasses a broader spectrum of responsibilities. Newton explains that emergency communications mainly deal with 9-1-1 services, receiving emergency calls and dispatching help, including police, fire, and EMS, while also offering pre-arrival instructions to callers. On the other hand, emergency management deals with larger-scale incidents like hurricanes, winter storms, and complex events, involving sustained and impactful incidents that require a strategic response.

Challenges Overcome

Chatham County has faced numerous challenges during Newton’s tenure, with each incident presenting its unique set of obstacles. COVID-19, in particular, strained their resources as the pandemic lingered for an extended period, making it difficult to cope. The situation worsened when they experienced a cyberattack during the pandemic, losing essential infrastructure like telephones and computers. Simultaneously, tropical weather and hurricanes added another layer of complexity to an already challenging scenario. Despite these difficulties, Chatham County’s emergency management team persevered, providing essential services to the community.

The State-of-the-Art Building

Since May, the Chatham County Emergency Operations Center has been housed in a modern building equipped with impressive redundancies. Newton takes pride in the ability to operate efficiently even in the face of equipment failures. He highlights the diversity of telecommunication services coming into the building, each with its own pathway, reducing the risk of complete communication breakdown. The building’s flexible spaces can be used for different missions, allowing them to collaborate with municipal partners and serve both the 9-1-1 Center and the Emergency Operations Center, depending on the situation.

Backup Facilities

Newton underscores the importance of backup facilities for emergency response centers. In the event of a 9-1-1 center going offline, the state’s Network Operations Center can reroute calls to any other center on the same network. Newton’s center, with its excellent redundancies and capabilities, can also offer assistance to the state by standing up a secondary facility when necessary, ensuring that every call is answered promptly.

Advances in Radio Systems

Excitement radiates from Newton when he talks about the advances in radio systems. These systems address a life safety issue by solving the interoperability problem with older infrastructure. In the past, communication between different agencies was challenging due to incompatibilities in equipment. The new radio systems, working primarily on 700MHz frequencies, integrate local interoperability, enabling Chatham County to work seamlessly with neighboring agencies and state partners.

The Impact of Cell Phone Advancements

The proliferation of cell phones has revolutionized emergency response. While it has made it easier to reach 9-1-1 in times of crisis, it has also created challenges in locating callers in need. The absence of a fixed, registered address associated with cell phones poses difficulties in pinpointing a caller’s location. Emergency centers like Chatham County have had to adapt by adopting new technologies and solutions to improve their response to cell phone calls.

E9-1-1 Addressing

Another noteworthy initiative in Chatham County was E9-1-1 addressing, which aims to systematically address streets based on specific criteria. This approach ensures that responders can swiftly locate addresses in an emergency, even in the absence of advanced technology. Addressing ordinances dictate when streets should be officially addressed and provide requirements for how addresses should be displayed on houses to enhance visibility.

As Chatham County continues to evolve, its emergency management and communications strategies must keep pace. Chatham County’s Emergency Operations Center stands as a symbol of resilience and preparedness. In the face of daunting challenges, this facility is equipped with redundancies, advanced technologies, and a dedicated team ready to serve the community. As we look to the future, the center’s commitment to enhancing its capabilities, embracing technological advancements, and addressing the ever-evolving needs of a growing county remains solid.

Watch on YouTube – Chatham Emergency Management Director Steve Newton

00:13 Emergency communications manager handles 9-1-1 calls and provides instructions while emergency management handles larger scale incidents.

  • Emergency communications manager is responsible for answering 9-1-1 calls and dispatching help.
  • Emergency management focuses on handling larger scale incidents like hurricanes and winter weather.

01:14 Managing various challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic and other incidents

  • Coping with limited resources and a prolonged duration of the COVID-19 response.
  • Dealing with a cyberattack that resulted in the loss of telephones, computers, and equipment.
  • Managing the impact of tropical weather and hurricanes.

02:12 Proud of the redundancies in the building

  • There are no single failure points in the systems
  • The building can be used for different missions and allow municipalities to work here
  • There are telecommunications redundancies with six different phone pathways in the building

03:14 Chatham Emergency Management has multiple vendors and infrastructure for telephones to ensure continuity.

  • If one vendor or infrastructure fails, they can switch over to another one.
  • They can support other 9-1-1 centers if they go down through network rerouting.

04:28 Chatham Emergency Management Director discusses the importance of radio systems for communication interoperability.

  • Radio systems enable communication with state and bordering agencies, solving a legacy issue with older equipment.
  • These systems also address problems with aging infrastructure that often fail due to age or maintenance issues.

05:34 Improved interoperability and options in emergency management systems

  • Now able to solve the issue of interoperability with new systems
  • Advancements in cell phone technology allow for locating callers in need but also present challenges due to lack of address association

06:35 Chatham County implemented E9-1-1 addressing

  • E9-1-1 addressing involves assigning addresses to streets based on specific criteria and ensuring they are visible for emergency responders
  • The goal is to improve the efficiency of locating homes during emergencies

07:35 Addresses in Chatham County play a vital role in emergency response.

  • Addresses help first responders locate homes during emergencies and provide timely help.
  • Addresses are based on a methodical approach, with distance on a road determining the address.