During May, the Salt River Police Department (SRPD) is spotlighting its Public Safety Communications Division, also known as Dispatch, as a way to increase awareness about the individual divisions within the police department.
The mission statement for the Public Safety Communications Division is “to provide a professional level of service to the Community, Police and Fire Department through integrity, trust and accountability.” As a support function for both the police and fire departments, their number-one job is to ensure officer and firefighter safety by ensuring the proper recording of detailed information and disseminating that information properly to the officers and firefighters responding to calls.
“This is the answering point for all the 9-1-1 calls, [including those made on] land lines and cellular phones,” explained SRPD Public Safety Communications Manager Curtis Thomas. “If somebody dials 9-1-1 in the Community, it comes to our dispatch center.”
Dispatch workers answer 9-1-1 calls to direct police, fire and emergency medical workers to each caller’s location. On SRPD calls, they consult a map of the Community that shows which officers are working in each beat (a specific district of the Community). The Salt River Fire Department uses a similar system; the emergency responders in the district of the call will be the first responders.
Dispatch finds those responders and notifies them so they can respond swiftly.
During 2011, Dispatch handled approximately 78,582 phone calls into the Communications Center, 15,512 of which were emergency 9-1-1 calls. Within these calls, 85,379 events were generated, including 1,028 fire calls, 2,933 emergency medical calls, 49 residential fires and 161 commercial fires. The total number of Salt River Fire Department incidents was 4,171.
Advanced Computer Technology
Calls used to go to the Maricopa County Dispatch Center and were then transferred to the Salt River Dispatch Center. But that involved extra time, which in some cases was difficult for callers during their time of need. Today it’s a little bit easier with the calls going directly to the Salt River Dispatch.
“Everything works off of radio and mobile data terminals,” said Thomas about how they communicate with the emergency responders and enter data.
“Everything is typed; [dispatchers and police officers] use a lot of computer software. Everything is done electronically. When officers arrived at a call, they can just hit a button and that lets us know they have arrived at their call.”
The Dispatch 9-1-1 system was revamped last year through Maricopa County.
The upgrade and advanced technology was paid for by the 9-1-1 tax.
Dispatchers are able to track cell-phone calls from their computer screen. “We can get pretty close, but [pinpointing the location of a caller using a cell phone is] not that accurate, especially if they’re moving,” said Thomas. “We refresh the computer screen and their location will jump down the road until they stop to where we can get a solid location, but we can at least get the general location and where they are headed from [using] this new system.”
Thomas has worked in dispatch for 37 years and has seen a number of people come through this line of work and move on because it can be quite stressful. He has been fortunate to see a few people stay and help train new staff members.
The department has four instructors certified to teach new staff a curriculum tailored to the Community. The only thing lacking is fire training. “Due to the fire-training changes, it’s hard keep up and teach something because a few months down the road, it changes,” he said.
Challenges and Rewards
“It’s rough and hard for some people to make it through the training when they first start working here,” said Thomas. “It’s a lot to ask from them—when you’re working in [Dispatch], you get yelled at and cussed at by the callers. Sometimes there are more than 50 officers going to a call at one time and there are only two Dispatch workers, not including fire—it’s a pretty hectic job. Some people don’t last too long in this line of work.”
The department has 16 staff members: 10 Community members, four Native Americans and two non–Native Americans. They rotate through three shifts each day throughout the entire year.
“The reason there are so many Community members and Natives in our staff is because it’s who we wanted,” explained Thomas. “A lot of times there is a dispatcher who knows where somebody lives, where people hang out, and that is valuable information. We purposely looked at people who are from here. But the bad thing is the stuff we deal with can be difficult. You could get a homicide call, and the person who is deceased could be someone you’re related to—that’s the bad part of it.”
“If you’re going to consider this career, it’s a lot to deal with, but the days are never the same. You’re going to be cussed at, yelled at; you’re going to be talking to the officers and they don’t answer back, and then you get worried because you don’t see what’s happening [out in the field],” said Leslie Enos, who has worked at Salt River Dispatch for 26 years. “But working for the Community, working for my home, helping the people out and doing whatever I can during their time of need is the most rewarding part of my job.”