When seconds count
Five years ago, a bus carrying a group of students crashed near the ski area of Santa Fe, N.M. Several passengers were injured, and two students were killed. Compounding the tragedy was a “horrendous” breakdown in communications among the police, sheriff, fire and emergency medical agencies that responded to the accident, according to Santa Fe County Fire Chief Stan Holden.
“Our capabilities for communicating inter-agency were almost nil,” Holden recalls. “We all worked very closely in the field, but were not able to communicate between dispatch centers and the field to coordinate our response to the accident.”
In the accident’s aftermath, the heads of several public safety agencies pledged to fix the city’s and county’s fractured communications infrastructure. Chief Holden joined with John Denko (then-city police chief and now secretary of the New Mexico State Department of Public Safety), then-county Sheriff Ray Sisneros and then-city Fire Chief Curtis Lardy (both of whom are now retired).
The group enlisted the support of the city and county managers, attorneys and finance directors, and they “began to plan a consolidated public safety communications and dispatch center,” Holden says. “Two-and-a-half years later, we finally reached the point where the city council and the county commission — the elected governing bodies — agreed through joint resolutions to build such a center.”
After two more years, on July 1, 2002, the Santa Fe Regional Emergency Communications Center (RECC) opened for operation. The $3 million center united the city’s and county’s disparate and aging emergency dispatch centers into one, centralized communications facility serving all police, sheriff, fire and emergency agencies.
In an average month, the RECC’s dispatch team handles more than 6,000 emergency calls and nearly 22,000 non-emergency (administrative) calls, according to Jerry Simpson, the center’s director. Prior to consolidation, he explains, precious minutes could be lost as dispatchers located in physically separate centers relayed calls to each other and attempted to coordinate emergency response. “Not only law enforcement but also fire and EMS communications were delayed,” Simpson says. “Now, communications are instantaneous because all dispatchers are physically located in the same room.”
Building consensus to enhance public safety
To make their vision a reality, Santa Fe’s agency leaders first had to put aside their egos. “The key, really, is getting the leaders of public safety agencies to agree that their number-one goal is providing public safety to the community,” Holden explains. “Then you’re going to remove the egos and all the other barriers in the way of getting public safety agencies as quickly as possible to citizens in need — no matter the need. That’s certainly the expectation of the public.”
Armed with research and presentations, Holden and his agency counterparts attended several meetings with politicians and residents. Those public events were challenging at times.
“The public attended and asked questions, and we didn’t always have the answers,” Holden recalls. “Sometimes we’d have to say that we would research the issue to come up with an answer. But we never put the hard questions aside to fester and boil. We would find the answer, even if we didn’t like it.”
Eventually, the politicians and residents were convinced to vote for the communication center. “We went out and passed a general obligation bond that included this general communications center funding,” Holden says. With funding lined up, the collaborating agencies then established how the center would operate.
A joint powers agreement between the city and county created a seven-member Regional Emergency Communications Center Board of Directors — a quasi-governmental authority comprised of Santa Fe County’s fire chief, sheriff and county manager, along with Santa Fe City’s police chief, fire chief and city manager. (The seventh director position is filled by a “citizen at large.”) The RECC Board was charged with hiring the center’s director and employees, and contracting with vendors to provide the technology infrastructure.
Equipping the communications center
A small group of companies — including Temecula, Calif.-based Plant Equipment, Denver-based Qwest and Albuquerque, N.M.-based Advanced Communications & Electronics — worked closely with the project’s lead integrator, Schaumburg, Ill.-based Motorola, to install the RECC’s technology infrastructure.
The center’s communication infrastructure now includes:
an Enhanced 911 (E911) system provided by Plant Equipment (see sidebar on page 42), which provides automatic caller identification and location information;
new radio equipment, including 12-station radio consoles provided by Motorola (and integrated with Plant’s E911 system), and an enhanced radio frequency (RF) backbone that includes microwave links with primary and secondary radio towers; and
a geographic information system (GIS) that generates maps of emergency sites and the closest emergency response units.
The RECC also is in the process of purchasing a computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system to replace two incompatible older systems used by city and county dispatchers. Dispatchers will be trained to use the system to dispatch public safety units and also to provide backup communications support to agencies in another county.
“Rio Rancho in Sandoval County is putting in a new communications center that will mirror what we have — including the same CAD system,” Simpson explains. “We’re envisioning that when we do have to back up one another, we will be able to electronically send information from one CAD system to the other. So it will be like working in the same room even though we are 60 miles apart. That will be tremendous for both of our centers, so that we can respond to each other’s 911 calls as needed.”
Funding for the RECC’s $1.7 million technology investment came from several sources: the general obligation bond passed by residents, the city and county governments, and the state, which footed nearly two-thirds of the bill. The state also “provided a lot of information and other assistance, because they had a vested interest at the state level in seeing tax dollars used well by local jurisdictions,” Holden says.
Additionally, the state government, which collects surcharges on every telephone line in New Mexico to fund local public safety communications, is contributing more than $500,000 a year to defray a portion of the center’s ongoing operational costs, which are estimated at $3.5 million annually, according to Holden. The bulk of the bill is split between Santa Fe City and County governments, depending on call volume. The center currently estimates that the city will carry about two-thirds of the funding burden, but that figure may be revised after the RECC completes its first full year of operation this summer.
Prior to the consolidated communications center, Holden adds, the city and county were spending more — nearly $250,000 a year more combined — to operate a much less effective public safety communications infrastructure. “We’re now on the cutting edge — whereas before we were working with, in some cases, late-1960s technology,” Holden says. “We now have the potential of taking the next step: putting mobile data terminals and automatic vehicle location systems into police vehicles first, and later into fire department vehicles.”
(Mobile data terminals allow maps, driving directions and status updates to be transmitted from the communications center to vehicles in the field. Automatic vehicle location systems allow the center to track the location of emergency vehicles as they respond to an emergency.)
A united team of dispatchers
Typically, the dispatch operations floor of the Santa Fe RECC is staffed by 11 emergency communications professionals, including the supervisor. Minimum staffing allowed is seven people. Most of the center’s dispatchers — officially designated as the center’s emergency communications specialists — previously worked as dispatchers for either Santa Fe City or County.
Many dispatchers opposed the consolidation into one center. “It was surprising how much the individual personnel initially resisted this move,” Holden says. “There was a lot of ownership in these dispatch centers, so it was hard enough to get agreement. Then we had to continually educate and reinforce the reasons why and convince our respective staffs that this was the appropriate thing to do. Ultimately, over the course of a year or so, by providing information and getting people at meetings and answering questions and working through problems, we eventually got there. Everyone finally caught the vision and understood what the goal was and why it was so important.”
Today, though the dispatchers work closely together, individuals still are assigned to support the specific agencies they worked for prior to consolidation — police and fire, or EMS, for either the city or county. “We’re still in the process of cross training people because, for example, sheriff’s office dispatchers are not familiar with city’s system, and we want everyone trained and certified in emergency medical dispatch,” Simpson explains.
“The dedicated dispatchers for each agency will go away,” Simpson says. “We’re phasing out gradually, so that by July 1, everyone simply will be an emergency communications specialist. Everyone will know everyone else’s job — when you have that, everyone works together well.”
The benefits of consolidation
Fortunately, the capabilities of Santa Fe’s RECC have yet to be fully tested by another catastrophic event like the bus accident that spurred the center’s creation, though Santa Fe’s public safety agencies and its residents see “examples of consolidation’s impact every single day,” Holden says.
“It’s something that’s tangible to public safety providers, and it’s tangible to the person who’s having the emergency. The benefits of having a system like we have now are just so overwhelmingly positive that a community cannot afford to not have this type of system,” Holden says.
As director of the RECC, Simpson says, “I’ve been in there on a number of occasions when the results of consolidation are very vivid to me.” One recent incident he recalls involved shots fired at state narcotics officers conducting a drug investigation. “When the shooting was reported, there was instant coordination between city police and county sheriff,” he says.
Financial benefits are compelling as well, Holden emphasizes. “We estimated that the savings from the personnel and equipment would pay for the center — for constructing the building, equipping the new center with all brand-new equipment and moving the personnel into the center,” he explains. “And for the taxpayer, right away you see a huge benefit just by getting the agencies of the city and county to agree on how they’re going to conduct business — which is the way it should be.”
John DeWitt is a New York-based business consultant and writer.