Gilbert Police Department’s cramped and inefficient 911 dispatch center will get much-needed elbow room to handle increasing call volume well into the town’s buildout in 2030.

Council last Tuesday unanimously approved spending $8 million to more than double the center’s size to 10,000 square feet and for related costs such as furniture and equipment at $2.6 million. It was Councilman Lauren Hendrix’s first meeting since he was elected to the seat in August.

 “What brought us here was that over the last several decades our town has grown,” said Kim Weber, dispatch manager. “We’re one of the fastest growing towns in the Valley and in the nation.”

The current dispatch center has 12 consoles that are in operation 24/7 and are six years past their lifecycle of 10 years, according to Weber.

And the 911, non-emergency and dispatched calls for service and field-initiated activity have all continued to increase significantly year over year, Weber said.

During peak times, a single dispatcher will handle 100-200 transmissions an hour, according to Weber.

The center saw 227,000 calls, both 911 and non-emergency, for fiscal year 2020 and a little over 1 million push-to-talk transmissions in 2019.

 With Council’s green light, the center will expand into two adjoining rooms currently used by Internal Affairs and the Hiring Unit. Those two will relocate to the adjacent Highland Justice Court building when the county leaves for a different site in July 2022. 

The cost for renovating 5,000 square feet in the court building is included in the $8 million.

The expansion will allow for up to 20 consoles at build-out, a training room and a decompression room.

Weber said the center currently doesn’t have a true decompression room for staff to step away and decompress.

“For the work our dispatchers do, the traumatic calls that they take, they need a space that they can take away off the floor and not hear what’s going on on the floor while they’re trying to reconcile with the stress that they’ve just encountered such as a baby drowning or a suicide call,” Weber said. 

“They need time to decompress off of that so that they can come back on the floor and take that next phone call without having an adverse reaction.”

Also, the current training room is just big enough for a maximum of three people without social distancing, she said.

The new training room will have four consoles that can be put into use when there is an overflow of 911 calls or during civil unrest, allowing for dispatchers to man another radio channel, Weber said.

“The benefit of having a full expansion for our dispatch center means a lot of things for our Police Department and in return for the public, the citizens of Gilbert,” Weber said. “Having a blank slate of 10,000 square feet to work with will allow us to design a state-of-the-art dispatch center.”

Weber said an avant-garde console will enable dispatchers to prepare for the next generation of 911 technology.

“We need the capability and the technology at our fingertips to be prepared for receiving text to 911 directly into our center, not using a third-party platform that we are using right now,” Weber said. 

“We need to be ready to serve our public when they are able to send pictures and photographs to us via 911 as well as video to 911,” she continued. 

“If they do a video chat with us on 911, we need to be prepared to accept those and that’s a whole new level that all the dispatch centers across the country are coming to terms with, trying to be prepared for that next wave of technology for 911.”

Chief Mike Soelberg said a mini-expansion – the addition of three dispatch terminals – is currently underway to bridge the gap until the dispatch center renovation is completed. The $700,000 cost for that has already been funded, Soelberg said.

Expansion of the center is expected to be completed by April 2023.

“When we think about calls for service you think about the officer responding to a call,” Soelberg said, adding:

 “When you might have an accident call, they’ll take 10, 15 phone calls and each phone call whether it’s an emergency or non-emergency has to be answered by our dispatchers and our call-takers and vetted out to make sure it’s the same one and if it’s not, enter a new call. 

“So there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scene just to get the officer out to the scene. They do an excellent job. Lot of the time the work they do you do not see but if they weren’t there to do it you would see the result of them not being there.”

The $8 million came from the town’s share of AZ Cares Act funds. Funding the dispatch center was part of a council subcommittee’s recommendations for Gilbert’s share of $29.2 million.

Councilwoman Aimee Yentes, who chaired the subcommittee, said it was important for the members to push as much of the federal pandemic relief dollars as possible out into the community and that was done with three-fourths of the money given to nonprofits and businesses.

“The original intent of the CARES money was specified for public safety,” she said. “Obviously putting that money into (public safety) operations supplanted what they normally would use and gave us an opportunity to do some other good in the community. 

“We did feel being able to accelerate a public safety objective was good within the purview of what those dollars were originally meant to be used for and obviously the need is there.”

With that said, she asked staff to try to come under the $8 million budget if possible.