SIERRA VISTA — It’s been a year since the much-touted Southeast Arizona Communications began providing a county-wide dispatch service for police, fire and emergency calls. But the facility, known as SEACOM, has yet to fit the needs of many of the state’s and county’s public safety agencies who say they prefer to maintain their own in-house dispatchers and call takers.
“I’m not a great believer in ‘one size fits all,’” said Benson Police Chief Paul Moncada in an email Friday. “Each police department is different and what works for one department/city doesn’t always work at the next department/city. We all have different duties and responsibilities.”
Moncada’s sentiments were echoed by police chiefs in Bisbee and Douglas, as well as officials at the Arizona Department of Public Safety. Each stressed that the models they are using are more efficient for their agencies and their communities.
“Our platform is that we have dispatchers in Phoenix, Flagstaff and Tucson and they cover the whole state, 24-7, 365,” said Major Kelly Heape, Chief of Staff Technical Services Division at Arizona Department of Public Safety. “We appreciate what is being done in Sierra Vista ... but it does not fit our format for efficiency.”
While Willcox Police also has its own dispatch center, Police Chief Dale Hadfield said the city manager is exploring the possibility of switching over to SEACOM once he sees it’s financially feasible. Hadfield said Willcox also dispatches for Healthcare Innovations, as well as Pearce-Sunsites fire district. The chief said that costs the city about $150,000 a year.
“I think it would make sense (to join SEACOM),” Hadfield said. “Right now, we have to switch over to another channel for county mutual aid. We can’t hear them (SEACOM) and they can’t hear us.”
He added that former city administration “did not explore SEACOM correctly.”
“We feel it’s better than having a bunch of different systems,” Hadfield added.
The idea for a county-wide communications center to handle all calls for emergency services, police, deputies and all other state and federal agencies, was hatched years ago, Cochise County officials have said. The plan was to benefit those who lived in the farthest reaches of Cochise County with limited resources.
Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels worked to get funding to build a center and he was able to secure money for the $13.3 million, 8,400-square-foot facility from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s office.
In its first year, SEACOM experienced some wrinkles, such as the dismissal of its first director and controversy over whether Dannels would be able to have a vote on the governing body known as the Joint Powers Authority Board.
Cmdr. Christopher Hiser, interim co-director of SEACOM, explained that the facility has a $2.2 million annual budget and the two principal partners are Cochise County and the City of Sierra Vista. The partnership was approved in an intergovernmental agreement between the two entities.
Additionally, SEACOM is governed by a Joint Powers Authority Board.
A committee comprised mostly of subscribing agency heads also convenes to develop and approve policies, procedures and practices. The SEACOM director answers to that committee and the JPA Board. The director of SEACOM manages the operation and all day-to-day matters.
Subscriber agencies join SEACOM once an agreement is approved between that agency’s governing body and the JPA Board, Hiser said. The subscriber fee for agencies is based on a formula matrix that includes factoring in a radio assessment and the respective service population. The subscriber rates go toward the overall SEACOM budget and the two principal partners are responsible for the remaining portion of the budget, Hiser said.
The current SEACOM subscribers and their annual subscribers fees are: Fry Fire District, $30,000; Huachuca City Police Department, $81,950; Whetstone Fire District, $23,000 Tombstone Marshal’s Office, $62,963; and the National Park Service, $7,500.
Sierra Vista Fire Chief Brian Jones extolled the benefits of belonging to SEACOM, saying everyone is on the same page.
“Operationally, all the fire departments are a part of SEACOM,” he said.”(The benefits are) having the ability to create our response plans ... and be efficient in our response.”
Sierra Vista Fire Marshal Paul Cimino agreed.
“(By) putting all our communications under one roof, we’re able to monitor what’s going on,” he said.
In addition, Hiser said, SEACOM dispatches for a variety of small rural volunteer fire districts in Cochise County. These districts do not pay subscriber fees. Hiser said many of these smaller fire districts were traditionally dispatched by the Sheriff’s Office prior to the SEACOM consolidation.
Hiser listed the benefits of being a subscriber to SEACOM:
Efficiency. Major incidents and disasters that span multiple jurisdictional boundaries can be managed efficiently and improve the coordination and timely delivery of services and assets to address the needs of the community. With all the dispatchers in one location, they no longer have to call each other over the phone to give updates.
• Full integration. This includes a cross-training regimen that prepares all dispatchers at SEACOM to handle any assignment. Across the board, all SEACOM dispatchers will be capable of dispatching for all agencies that subscribe to SEACOM, both law enforcement, fire, and EMS.
• Cost savings. The annual subscriber fees for individual agencies to receive dispatch services from SEACOM are substantially lower than the cost for an individual agency to start up and run their own dispatch center. This has in fact been the appeal to many smaller municipalities and fire districts.
Hiser said he has witnessed the cohesiveness between dispatchers at SEACOM. “Since SEACOM has been open, I’ve already seen instances where coordination among first responders has improved and all it took for that to happen was for a dispatcher to lean over and let another fellow dispatcher know what’s going on. When it’s that easy, it frees up the dispatchers from having to make calls and they can concentrate efforts on other priority tasks.”
More than money
But for police chiefs like Moncada, Albert Echave of Bisbee, and Kraig Fullen of Douglas, it’s more about keeping longtime employees who know the community and its needs. Also, the agencies received funding for their dispatch centers from the state. If they decided to break away from their own dispatch centers, they would have to reimburse that money.
Echave has four full-time dispatchers and three part timers who work out of the Bisbee Police Department. If someone has a city emergency, such as a wastewater backup, dispatchers will contact public works, for example. His two records clerks also are trained as dispatchers.
“We have plenty of coverage,” Echave said. “In the event of an emergency there’s a force multiplier for dispatch because they can go in and help field phone calls, they can help dispatch, they can help the process so one person doesn’t become overwhelmed in there.”
“I don’t want to lose my dispatch center and I don’t want to lose those employees,” Echave said.
He said he relies on dispatch to “pick up the slack” when his other part-time employees are out of the office. He also said the salaries he pays his dispatchers annually — roughly $130,000 — is higher than what it would cost to join SEACOM for one year. But it’s not all about cost.
“SEACOM is a good thing, but we have a good thing here as well with our dispatch,” Echave said. “I’m proud of my employees and I definitely want to keep them ... we need more jobs in Bisbee.”
Echave said if he were to lose his dispatchers by joining SEACOM, he would have to hire additional staff for “assisting jobs” that the dispatchers sometimes do to help out at the department.
For Fullen of Douglas, it’s all about the demographics.
“We were approached to join SEACOM, but we’re looking at the differences in our community,” he said.”Our community is mainly Spanish-speaking. We have two dispatchers and both were required to be bilingual. If we belonged to SEACOM, you might get a dispatcher that does not speak Spanish. That call would then have to go to the language line and that creates a delay.”
Fullen said Douglas Police also volunteered to be the “answering agency” for cell phone 911 calls that sometimes bleed over from Mexico.
“Because of our bilingual dispatchers, and because of the proximity of the northern areas of Sonora state, we sometimes get calls that hit our cell towers from Mexico,” Fullen said. “We don’t have the ability to do a direct transfer, so we contact the communications center in Mexico — known as C-5 — and pass on the information.”
For Heape at DPS, he said the agency would have to pull at least six dispatchers from its Tucson office, as well as a supervisor, in order to join SEACOM. The Sierra Vista Highway Patrol District includes other areas, Heape said, and currently, the dispatchers in the Tucson dispatch center cover not only southern Arizona, but the rest of the state as well. Phoenix does the same.
“Our technology allows us to do that,” Heape said. “We need them (dispatchers) to stay in Tucson for that efficiency.”
The department also owns its own system and technology, Heape said.
“So we have no cost,” he added. “Our primary purpose is, it does not fit our format for efficiency.”
But aside from the efficiency, Moncada of Benson Police — like his colleagues Echave and Fullen — feels it’s important to have a dispatch staff that has the pulse of its community.
”I consider the Communications Section another investment in our community,” the chief wrote in his email. “Some of them live in the community and in the surrounding area and their children attend our schools, they shop here and they pay taxes here. I depend on them, they do so much more than just answer phones and man the radios.”