Developing Downtowns central nervous system

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August 31, 2009
By: Jake Weyer
Jake Weyer
// A ‘Fusion Center’ launched in July serves as a surveillance hub, emergency dispatch and hospitality resource for Downtown //

As an ambassador with Minneapolis’ new Downtown Improvement District, Tia Florenz has spent much of her time answering questions about the city — what bus routes to take, where the best happy hours are, what restaurants serve the best breakfast.

Between the inquiries she’s dispatched emergency personnel, coordinated messages to Downtown security staff, filed graffiti reports, scanned the weather and local news, kept track of area events and much more, always with her eyes on the streets. With more than 30 cameras focusing on 120 square blocks in the core of Downtown, she’s got a killer view.

Though she wears the same, now familiar, bright-yellow uniform as her colleagues, Florenz is not a typical ambassador. She’s one of a few specially trained to work in a tiny new room in the 1st Precinct dubbed the Fusion Center.

Launched in July, the center serves as a surveillance hub, emergency dispatch facility and hospitality resource for Downtown. Aside from the camera connections, the center incorporates radio links to security staff in dozens of Downtown buildings; an intercom for communication with other ambassadors and police; a TV used to track news, weather, daily scheduled events and other happenings; a Downtown map with camera and security team locations; and other resources.

The Minneapolis Police Department paid for all the equipment, but 1st Precinct Insp. Janeé Harteau said the center’s development really came out of the SafeZone, a nonprofit collaborative of the public and private sectors founded in 2006 to make Downtown a safer, more welcoming place.

The Fusion Center got its name from the convergence of stakeholders and the variety of technology as well as the myriad services the facility provides.

 “We were basically fusing all of these operations into one,” Harteau said. “This was a way for us to bring all of those entities together.”   

Some of the technology, such as the security-staff radio link and camera system, has been in place for years, but the Fusion Center puts all the tools in the same room. Police still monitor cameras and radio and work the phones at the front desk, but the fusion center ambassadors provide an extra set of eyes and ears.

“We didn’t want to supplement any monitoring that police were doing, but layer it and enhance it,” said SafeZone Executive Director Shane Zahn, who helps oversee the Fusion Center.

Zahn said the center’s role is a broad one. Even though it’s only staffed with one ambassador at a time, it’ll handle everything from directions to dispatching police.

It is the first point of contact for the ambassadors working the streets, so if they’re asked a question they can’t answer, they can pass it on to the fusion center. The center’s staff will either find the answer or direct the person to a resource that can. The service is similar to the city’s 311 phone service.

“But we’re doing it face to face with the general public, so that ambassador is like a walking 311, and the Fusion Center is the point of contact,” Harteau said.  

Though the hospitality services have been a focus during the center’s first weeks, public safety has also been a priority.

Ambassadors have come across several individuals this summer that were either unconscious or in need of immediate medical care. Through ambulances dispatched from the Fusion Center, those peoples’ lives were saved, Zahn said.

The center also proved its worth during the severe weather on Aug. 19. Florenz, who was working that afternoon, said she lost visuals from the cameras, but saw severe weather alerts on TV and radioed for all ambassadors — many who were out with umbrellas helping people cross streets — to take cover.  

Downtown Council President Sam Grabarski and Brookfield Properties Vice President Ted Zwieg, both SafeZone board members, said the Downtown Improvement District and the Fusion Center have made the organization’s efforts more visible.

“It’s all about collaboration between the private and public sectors,” Zwieg said. “And I think the Fusion Center is good representation of how those two have come together to enhance the communication Downtown.”

Harteau said she hopes the center becomes a national model and eventually grows into a full-blown emergency preparedness center that can handle all aspects of public safety from street crime to natural disasters and homeland security.

For now, the little room’s role is big enough, and it keeps Florenz plenty busy.

“I really enjoy this job a lot,” she said. “It’s fulfilling and I like seeing the results.”