Rio Rancho Police Chief Stewart Steele recalls the day several months ago when a call went out from the dispatch center about a SWAT situation. The chief headed out to his unit to go to the scene as he’s done countless times before.
“Then I said, ‘You what? I’m going to go to the dispatch center,’' he said during an interview at the Sandoval County Regional Emergency Dispatch Center (SCRECC) in Rio Rancho. “I watched them work and it was the most incredible thing. It didn’t surprise me because I know what they are capable of. But it was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.”
The chief saw dispatchers working together, and working together with SWAT personnel, to coordinate the response. The situation turned out to be nothing, Steele said, but watching the dispatchers in action left an impression.
“It made me proud,” he said.
Chief Steele has been on the other end of the line with dispatchers and knows what they go through. “They are incredibly professional,” he said. “We hear a lot of things, whether it’s a dispatcher helping to deliver a baby or walking someone through CPR and things like that. You hear these stories and, from our end, we hear that calm voice at the other end when we’re in the middle of chaos.”
The dispatchers are all Rio Rancho city employees, but they work for the entire county. The SCRECC operates under a Joint Powers Agreement with Sandoval County, the town of Bernalillo, the village of Corrales and Santa Ana Pueblo. The city serves as the fiscal agent, under the JPA, and manages operations at the dispatch center. It takes on most of the costs, while the other entities contribute varying amounts.
Most of the 9-1-1 calls originate from Rio Rancho and are handled by the RRPD or RRFR, as well.
The city and Sandoval County are in a dispute over the SCRECC, both accusing the other of breaking the JPA. While the county has called for mediation to settle the matter, the city contends that’s premature. It imposed a Sept. 15 deadline for Bernalillo, Corrales and Santa Ana to provide feedback on competing proposals from the city and the county on restating the JPA, which was last updated in 2015.
Deputy Chief Andrew Rodriguez said those who work at the dispatch center are aware of the tug-of-war, but, as professional as they are, remain detached.
“The JPA issue notwithstanding, there’s enough adversity out there that they are dealing with and we try to deal with all those distractions externally and make sure this place operates no matter what. No matter what goes on, we’re still here answering phones,” he said.
All parties say they won’t let the dispute interfere with public safety. Prioritizing protecting and serving the public is a value they all agree on.
Tens of Thousands of Calls
The SCRECC handled 46,467 emergency calls in the fiscal year that ended June 30, according to Jolene Madrid, manager at the dispatch center.
She notes that the SCRECC is one of just five dispatch centers in New Mexico, out of more than 40, with accreditation. “I’m incredibly proud of the work we’ve done at the center, the progress we’ve made, and the staff we have,” said Madrid, who came up through the ranks as a dispatcher.
So did assistant manager Stacey Tipton. Between the two, they have nearly 40 years experience at the center.
Madrid said one of the reasons the current dispatch team is so good is because they have tenure. Several of the 36 people working there have already logged more than 10 years.
“I kind of feel lucky,” she said. “When Stacy and I came on as the management team, we maintained our staffing. It’s incredible that we have the tenured staff we do, teaching the younger staff, mentoring them and coaching them along the way.
“The hard part is the training, because it is vigorous training and there’s a lot to learn.”
Madrid said training lasts six to eight months, so that’s a lot to invest in an employee. And not all of them make it. Needless to say, when there are lives on the line the job of a dispatcher can be extremely stressful.
“It’s not just the calls that are stressful, but it’s also trying to learn to cope along with your other co-workers,” she said. “What I emphasize to them is that it's a village. It takes all of us on this team to make the shift move.”
Dispatchers work 10-hour shifts four days a week, giving them three days to decompress from their work weeks.“In those moments of stress, we do allow breaks to give them time to de-stress,” added Tipton. “We also offer peer support here. We have individuals they can talk to.”
Chief Steele said Rio Rancho Police includes dispatchers in de-briefings of stressful incidents.
“While we often know what happened in the end – did we save the kid or what happened to that person in the hospital? – they don’t always know. We always try to make sure that they have that closure at the end,” he said.
“They might not have been there physically, but they’re there emotionally,” added Deputy Chief Rodriguez. “They experience the same trauma. They experience the same highs and lows.”
Dispatchers work in teams of five. Not all the calls dispatchers handle are life or death situations. He noted that the dispatch center handles all the non-emergency calls, too, and they really do get those my-cat-is-stuck-in-a-tree-type calls.
He said dispatchers don’t just play a critical role in assisting police and fire personnel in emergency situations, they also are an important link to people in the community.
“We couldn’t do those things without their staff and them getting some of the best training,” he said. “They are our lifeline for our community.”
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