“Night and day.” That’s how Curtis Thomas, manager of the Communications Division for the Salt River Police Department, describes the difference between the communications technology used by the SRPD in 1975 and the technology today. When Thomas started on the job, he had only a typewriter and a phone.
Today the department uses advanced technology to monitor, manage and respond to a wide variety of emergency and non-emergency calls.
“Night and day” also describes what it’s like to work in communications for the police department, because responding to calls and protecting the public safety is a 24-hour assignment. As Thomas celebrates his long career with the SRPD, he shared some memories of what it was like to start out as a dispatcher 35 years ago.
In 1975, he was approached by Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community recruiter Chico Thomas, who told him that the chief of police was looking for a male dispatcher.
“I interviewed for the job at 10 a.m. and was hired on the spot,” Curtis Thomas recalled. “I started working at 1 p.m. that same day.” On his first day of work, he sat behind a dispatcher and observed the job duties.
His first serious call was when an officer called in the code that meant someone was deceased. Thomas remembers the radio static was so bad that the officer had to repeat himself numerous times. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, my God,’ but eventually you get used to calls like that,” he said.
When the dispatchers moved to the new location from the building on McDowell and Longmore, they had to re-enter some call data. Thomas kept coming across call logs where he had been the dispatcher, and that triggered more memories.
“I kept seeing calls that I worked on where really bad things happened. It was weird to me that I did not remember them. It was strange,” he said. “But then I thought this might be the mechanism of how I dealt with some of the difficult calls. As a Community member, some of those calls involved people who were once my friends or schoolmates, and some even involved my family.”
Each year the Community’s Public Safety Communications Division receives approximately 130,000 calls, and the latest technology is required to keep up with the demand.
Technology has undergone a drastic change from Thomas’ early days. For one thing, computers aren’t as large as they used to be. He pointed to the desk and said, “The computers were as big as the desk.”
Today the Community utilizes top-of-the-line communications equipment for police officers, firefighters and other public safety personnel. The system allows a dispatcher to see where a call is coming from, and even gives the exact location of the person. Thomas explains that the Automatic Vehicle Location system (AVL) consists of a GPS receiver on the vehicle (police vehicle, fire truck or other vehicle), a communications link between the vehicle and the dispatcher, and tracking software for dispatchers that is run on a PC. He said, “When we get an incoming call, the name, the mapping data and everything we need automatically comes on the screen.”
Still on the Job
While it’s everyone’s job to prevent and report crimes, and to assist in an emergency should one occur, Community members can be glad knowing that Thomas and other Communications Division employees are on the job. Thomas said he enjoys serving as a liaison for Salt River police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians (EMTs).
“We get the call first, we get [the appropriate personnel to the scene] and then the officers do their jobs. In a sense, we have something to do with every life saved” or person helped in a bad situation, he said.
Thomas had planned on leaving after 35 years, but he’s going to be helping the people of the Community a little bit longer. Like many workers across the country whose retirement plans lost significant value because of the recession, he must continue working. Luckily, he enjoys his job. He said, “For now, I am just going to have to wait, and we’ll see where the road ends in five years.”