WILLCOX — A subscriber agreement between Willcox and SouthEast Arizona Command, SEACOM, has been reached for regional 911 communications.
The Willcox City Council has unanimously approved the motion for the contract.
SEACOM, based in Sierra Vista and serving Cochise County, will handle a portion of the incoming 911 calls to Willcox police and fire departments, with a plan to process all calls by July 2023.
It is a “responsibility of emergency services communications” service and is used by the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office and the Sierra Vista Police Department.
In 2020 SEACOM answered 102,918 administrative phone calls and 44,932 911 calls and worked with 16 fire departments and law enforcement agencies throughout the county.
SEACOM dispatchers receive extensive training in call-taking, dispatching appropriate resources and providing support for field units.
Dispatchers utilize Priority Dispatch Corp. Emergency Dispatch Protocols for fire, medical and law enforcement calls, allowing them to provide pre-arrival and post-dispatch instruction to callers.
Teaming up with SEACOM is a cost-savings measure. The city hopes to save direct investment and carry the salaries that operating a local 911 system would entail.
It’s also to address a staffing issue, a problem with attracting, training and maintaining qualified local dispatchers.
The city does not qualify to have the state of Arizona support its emergency call systems because numbers and frequency of calls are too low. That means having to provide the service itself.
SEACOM Director Michael Clein made a presentation to the mayor and City Council during the Oct. 21 City Council meeting. He introduced himself and explained what the organization did and how he intended to work with Willcox.
Mayor Mike Laws favored the proposed agreement, stating, “they have countless numbers of saves. They have done similar things with fire, EMS and active shootings. They are certified to do that.”
Council member Rachel Garza voiced her concern in the call being answered from afar instead of locally, and asked if it would require new equipment.
Clein reassured Garza the computer system has the entire area mapped out.
“When the dispatcher answers, they ask, what is your address, and it validates it,” Clein said. “With that, the computer identifies which town it is and based on pre-developed response plans, the computer knows where it is and what unit needs to go. It is constantly updated and monitored.”
He also mentioned that the various cell carriers in the area evolve and change service regularly, so his administrator coordinates with the cell companies and adjusts response plans related to their service areas.
Clein also assured Garza that they’re not trying to displace local dispatchers, that in some cases they want to develop dispatchers who can work locally in some outlying communities. “For example, Douglas will dispatch for SEACOM out of Douglas,” he said.
The service is looking into the potential of setting up such a dispatcher in Willcox.
“We have some turnover that may be occurring and a few retiring,” City Manager Caleb Blaschke said about the current dispatchers. “They are looking at different options and opportunities for our current staff.”
One dispatcher is set to retire in July 2023, while a second dispatcher who retired before being asked to work part time, would like to retire for good.
Dale Hadfield, the city’s director of public safety, said the city spends about $274,000 a year to maintain its 911 system.
“We are falling short of the threshold of 911 calls. The staffing issue is still going to be there,” Hadfield said.
“All equipment would have to be repurchased every five years. For one employee it is roughly $68,678 a year with benefits,” he said, but reiterated the staffing woes.
“We had a National Guard and a police candidate who both left because they couldn’t make it. We had another one that made it to 16 weeks. We advertised and had eight apply and only one showed up and found out it is shift work and declined.”
Hadfield said that he and police officers have had to cover dispatch shifts.
SEACOM is not immune to staffing challenges either. Clein said they are capable of staffing 20, but are at half that.
Blaschke sees eventual cost savings, some immediate relief in staffing, and in the long run a 911 system whose cost is offset by grouping with other agencies in the county.