Australia's beaches and unique wildlife are being challenged in their status as top tourist attractions from an unlikely source -- lately, it seems, people from all over the world are coming to tour a state-of-the-art emergency communications center.

In the state of Victoria, Australia, the government has consolidated the emergency dispatch operations of six separate agencies under one command -- the Bureau of Emergency Services Telecommunications (BEST). Even more striking than the mere consolidation though, is that the state chose to hand the whole operation over to a private United States-based corporation.

In January 1995, Intergraph Corp., a Huntsville, Ala.-based company specializing in public safety oriented computer software development, was awarded the $120 million contract. Under the contract -- final details of which were not ironed out until May of last year -- Intergraph agreed to build the communications centers, outfit them with Intergraph's geographic information system (GIS) and computer aided dispatch (CAD) systems, then hire, train and manage the dispatch employees.

"This has never been done before. No government in history has ever consolidated this much responsibility under one roof and handed the keys to a private organization," said Grant Griffiths, chief executive officer of Intergraph Public Safety Propriety Ltd., the subsidiary created to manage the Australian contract. "That is why it took until May to negotiate the actual contract -- there was just no precedent for this; we are the precedent."

The initial contract, which includes an intricately woven set of checks and balances designed to protect both the government and Intergraph, is good for seven years, at which time the state can step in and take over, hand the operation to a different operator or renew Intergraph's contract. As difficult a hurdle as the contract itself presented, the timeline Intergraph and BEST were expected to work under was equally daunting. Intergraph was asked to build and equip the two communications centers, staff them with trained employees and integrate the operations of the police and state emergency services in a nine-month period.

"We had no flexibility on the deadline date of September 5, 1995, not an inch of wiggle room. We had already sold the old police communications center and the new owners were taking over on that date," said Geoff Spring, chief executive officer for BEST.

"We spent $34 million (Australian) in seven months just building and outfitting the two centers, and we went from 11 to 270 employees between February and September. It was all amazingly fast," added Griffiths. "Most everyone we talked to told us this was a two-year job minimum, but the date had been set for Sept. 5 and that date never moved -- at 2 a.m. on Sept. 5, we turned the system on and went live with the first three agencies."

SYSTEM OF SUCCESS

Today the system is handling 4,000 police and fire calls, and another 600 to 700 ambulance events a day. By the end of 1996, BEST will be dispatching for Victoria Police, Metropolitan Ambulance Service, Ambulance Service Victoria, Metropolitan Fire Brigade, County Fire Authority and Victoria State Emergency Services, and the system will be responding to 1.5 million calls annually for a population of 4.5 million people. Already, the project seems to have paid off.

With Intergraph employees stepping in to take over emergency dispatch operations, Victoria has been able to release 160 sworn officers back to field work. And those new Intergraph employees are paid about two-thirds the $65,000 (Australian) salary commanded by police personnel. Intergraph said that it has spent $1.7 million training the dispatch employees, and Spring pointed out that the new Intergraph system, which features the largest CAD map in the world, is capturing more data than ever before.

Putting the whole system in place involved an incredible amount of logistical planning, including the intricately woven contract and the establishment of BEST, a small executive unit within Victoria's Department of Justice.