The Arizona Department of Public Safety’s northern communication center has closed and now calls to police on highways in northern Arizona are being serviced out of the dispatch centers in Tucson and Phoenix.
While dispatchers and former DPS employees opposed the closure, the decision was made in January to close the center due to declining recruitment numbers. On the center’s last day of transmission in October, only three Flagstaff dispatchers were working shifts in the center, DPS officials said. The last three workers decided to quit on the same day.
Many employees retired early, found new jobs in the community or in the agency. Only two workers transferred to the dispatch center in Phoenix, according to Bart Graves, spokesman for DPS.
Suzanne Holbert, a former worker of the northern dispatch center, felt the loss of institutional knowledge of the region, not necessarily the city's loss of 30 full-time dispatch jobs, is where the impact will really be felt.
“The service and the knowledge and the well over 200 years of experience they lost is going to affect service for a while,” Holbert said.
The northern communication center responded to an area larger than the state of Washington, covering counties from Mohave, Coconino, Yavapai, Navajo, Apache and Gila counties. From the seat of a dispatcher, it is a common belief that seconds save lives. And for many of the northern communication center dispatchers, they’re concerned about the time in transition as dispatchers in Tucson and Phoenix absorb knowledge of such a large geographic area.
Dispatchers acknowledged that Phoenix and Tucson had a much higher quantity of calls, fielding calls for a population of over 1.5 million people and a half million people respectively. Holbert said come winter when the first snow falls on northern Arizona, the region's call load really ramps up as people travel north to play in the snow.
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At any given time dispatchers are expected to know details about their region as quickly as possible, like which radio frequency covers which geographic area if a radio transmission is garbled, or where the nearest off-duty officer could be found if a lone trooper needs sudden back-up.
If an individual dispatcher didn't know the answer, many in the northern center knew the dispatcher next to them would have the necessary knowledge.
“My opinion is that it’s still not a good move logistically, handling that amount of workload, that amount of geography for such a small group of people,” Holbert said.
Employees of the center were angry about the manner and tone of the closure announcement in January. Some politicians decried the closure announcement of the northern center including local and state legislatures, and attempted to reach out to DPS Director Frank Milstead to keep the center open.
But in the end, the 14 people employed by the center left and the 29 possible full-time positions with benefits were cut. To replace the work being done by the northern center, DPS has installed four new dispatch consoles in Phoenix, according to Raul Garcia, a spokesman with DPS.
“The Arizona DPS continues to place public and law enforcement safety first and foremost, and its employees within the operational communication bureau remain committed to this endeavor,” Garcia said.
DPS will continue to use the Flagstaff property, and said it would remain in use by other parts of the agency.