AZTEC — The San Juan County Communications Authority celebrated its 20th year of operations last week during a celebration marked with speeches, food and tours of the facility.
The authority is the central hub of emergency communications in the county including the handling of all 911 calls. The authority handles about 376,000 calls a year.
Consolidated in 1994, the state-of-the-art Communications Authority facility houses 17 work stations, employs 45 workers, 40 of which are call-takers and dispatch operators. It also has space for a training center and command room.
The idea for a centralized facility began in 1988 when then-Bloomfield Police Chief Phil Nobis and Bloomfield Fire Chief George Duncan sought to provide enhanced 911 services to Farmington, Aztec, Bloomfield and unincorporated areas of San Juan County.
"This is probably the best example of what counties and cities can do when they put their minds together and make a consolidated effort," said Danny Carpenter, former San Juan County Commission Chairman and first board chairman for the authority. He spoke at the celebration of the center's 20 years of operation on Wednesday. The building bears his name in honor of his early efforts to secure the center.
Before the center opened, there were three separate Public Safety Answering Points, or PSAPs — in Farmington, Aztec and Bloomfield. The San Juan County Sheriff's Office and New Mexico State Police maintained separate dispatch centers, and 911 calls for them from other PSAPs had to be transferred causing delays in service, said San Juan County Communications Authority Director Dave Ripley.
Since then, the authority has increased its capacity to handle emergency calls, he added.
"We handle 56,000 911 calls each year, 320,000 non-emergency calls per year from citizens in San Juan County — 376,000 total calls, including calls for service from citizens — and approximately 70,000 outgoing calls each year. It's a busy call center," Ripley said. "We invest in our people with the most comprehensive training with 1,000 hours for each employee who will be expected to hold five different certifications."
Ripley is proud of the center's innovative advances, which has garnered interest from other directors of call centers around the country, he said.
The authority has the latest technology, on par with any center in the country, Ripley said. In 2010, the center was the first in the state to replace its out of date analog 911 phone system with a state-of-the-art Internet Protocol-based phone system.
Funding for the center comes from special gross receipts tax and $1 million a year from a 51-cent surcharge on all phones, he said.
"Everyone wants to emulate us," Ripley said.
But keeping employees with demanding workloads of the job long-term is an ongoing challenge, he said.
"We have room to grow, but retention of workers is a challenge," Ripley said. "We'll do a hiring cycle and 100 will apply. Of those, 33 will make an initial round of training, but only 2 or 3 will continue beyond that."
Surrounded by five monitors and multiple phones, keyboards and command center equipment, a dispatch operator's work can be stressful and demand laser-beam focus, which requires a particular skill set not all who apply possess.
To keep in step with the latest advances in technology, Ripley said texting 911 calls, streaming video reports and software called telematics — "like OnStar on steroids" — will help the center better rout calls and relay information to multiple departments and vehicles.
The center also houses all warrants, currently 26,000 of them, in its offices for greater information handling by multiple departments. The center can confirm warrants for any entity 24 hours a day.
Duncan is chairman of the San Juan County Communications Authority board of directors and board member since its inception in 1994. He gives all credit to Carpenter for his vision and energy toward helping the center become a reality, but it's the employees at the center for whom Duncan reserves special praise.
"These folks work for the betterment of the community as a whole. They serve what's best for the community and the public at large, not just for their own agency or interest They do a fantastic job," Duncan said.
James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4631 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.