Busy Sante Fe, N.M., 911 Center to See Millions in Tech Upgrades

Over the next few years, the Regional Emergency Communications Center plans to spend millions of dollars on improvements to its office space and technology.

by Sami Edge, The Santa Fe New Mexican / July 9, 2018

(TNS) — Inside a cramped and fluorescent light-filled room in the back of a county building on N.M. 14, the calls never end.

Workers in blue uniforms speak rapidly into headsets as they scan a wall of computer monitors — six screens at each station — and their hands fly across keyboards and over multiple mouses.

Over the fuzz of radio traffic, a constant stream of questions and commands:

“Is the cow in the road?”

“Why is the vehicle suspicious?”

“I need you to stay on the line with me … I’m going to call the fire department. Stay on the line.”

This is the Santa Fe Regional Emergency Communications Center, the hub of 911 traffic in Santa Fe County. Day in and day out, operators help direct emergency responders to every corner of the county, dispatching an array of public safety agencies, from the Santa Fe Police Department to the county fire department. They take emergency calls from as far away as Edgewood and help direct nonemergency calls, too.

At any given time, there are at least eight “public safety communicators,” or 911 operators, working at the center. Over a 12-hour shift, an operator might guide a patient through a medical emergency, keep someone calm during a shooting and help a police officer run a background check on a driver during a traffic stop.

Sometimes they help deliver babies.

But the crowded center is understaffed, and operators are using some outdated equipment that’s due for an upgrade.

Over the next few years, the Regional Emergency Communications Center plans to spend millions of dollars on improvements to its space and technology. The changes, administrators say, will allow 911 operators to dispatch more efficiently, and help both first responders and the public stay safe.

On a recent evening, Sylvana Chavez, 22, took calls for the city and county fire departments. As she spoke to callers — among them, a woman whose stove was on fire, an employee of an alarm company and a public utility worker she had alerted about a pole damaged in monsoon rains — she typed notes onto a black screen in colorful lines of text.

That’s the center’s computer aided dispatch software. It’s over 20 years old.

“It’s not like they die,” center Director Ken Martinez said, “but it’s getting obsolete.”

The Regional Emergency Communications Center, funded with both city and county money, recently purchased a dispatch system that cost close to a million dollars. Officials hope to have the new system fully stalled and implemented by February 2019.

One of the primary boons of the new system, Martinez said, is near pinpoint location accuracy.

While the current dispatch system helps triangulate the general location of a caller, operators spend precious time gathering specific location information for responders.

Chavez, for instance, asked the woman with the burning stove what color her house was and what kind of cars were parked outside so she could help direct firefighters to the scene.

Even with the new dispatch software, operators will still ask for locations, as per the center’s protocol, Administrator Randy Vallejos said, but the system will also be “pretty spot on, pretty pinpoint — just like our cellphones now can tell us exactly where we’re at.”

The 911 operators go far beyond directing emergency responders to a scene — such as helping to deliver babies.

“I’ve delivered two,” said Ignacio “Nash” Dominguez, 30, an eight-year veteran of the dispatch center. “I fought hard to get them to name the baby Ignacio.”

Neither baby has his name.

The operators have a set of medical prompts they follow to help people through a range of medical situations, from losing a tooth to a stroke.

Dominguez has had to use the 911 service for such assistance. As a teenager, he called the line twice when his father was having a life-threatening medical emergency, he said. The women on the other end of the line talked him through CPR, Dominguez said.

Years later, those women helped train him at the center.

“I can remember their voices to this day, just from that call,” he said. He wants to pay their lifesaving help forward.

The center’s relatively new Smart911 system, purchased about two years ago, Vallejos said, helps the response to medical emergencies go more smoothly from both sides of the phone.

The software allows county residents to create online profiles of themselves and their households — including information about children or other people living in the home, as well as pets — which show up if they place a call to the center using a registered cellphone. The profile can include whether a person has a medical condition like diabetes, Martinez said, and where they keep their insulin. Then 911 operators can make sure first responders have that information.

The profile also might include whether a caller has a mental illness, such as schizophrenia, which would prompt an operator to alert a local crisis response team about a possible behavioral health issue.

There are other changes in the works as well. The center recently announced it’s implementing a new program called Panic Button by Rave Mobile Safety that will allow school administrators to provide 911 operators with blueprints of the school and communicate other important information with them quickly during an emergency through a cellphone app.

The communications center is still working with the city and county to hash out a replacement plan for a radio system that will become obsolete in the next few years.

The multimillion-dollar switch — estimates range from $3.5 million to more than $8 million — is necessary because Motorola will no longer contract with the city for the radio system’s maintenance after 2021, according to Larry Worstell, the city’s information technology manager.

An expansion of the cubicle-crammed dispatch center also is expected to be complete by the end of 2019. The construction project is extending the center’s space out into the back parking lot of the county public safety building south of Santa Fe.

When it’s finished, Martinez said, maybe his office won’t double as a supply closet, as it does now, with walls stacked with boxes and a supply of sanitation wipes.

“It just made sense to get it all done at once,” Martinez said of the center’s improvements. “It needs to be brought into the next generation.”

As the RECC moves forward, they’re looking to fill at least 14 positions. Currently, Vallejos said, the center has 26 operators and supervisors working on calls. Fully staffed, they would have 40. The pressure of the job and the pay — which recently jumped from $12 to $14 an hour at the start, plus yearly raises for the first three years — isn’t always worth the stress for employees, whose ages average in the mid-20s.

“If people can get past their third year … they’ll stay,” Vallejos said. “But this job tends to eat people up.”

On the other hand, Martinez said, people who love the job have a hard time walking away from it, even if they could retire. Together, Martinez and Vallejos have decades of experience. So do some of the operators.

Dominguez is almost at the decade mark himself.

“It’s a job that a lot of people try, few people succeed, and even fewer actually love,” Dominguez said.

©2018 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.