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On The Frontlines of Suicide Prevention

Emergency Communications Specialist Bill Harris sits at his console Wednesday morning in the dispatch center at the Law Enforcement Administration Facility. Dispatchers are often on the front lines dealing with suicidal subjects who call 911 directly or sending first responders to assist when family, friends or members of the public call worried about a persons mental state.

Dispatchers say they fear the unannounced closure of the Arizona Department of Public Safety’s northern dispatch center could endanger troopers, public response time and the department’s ability to assist other agencies across the state.

The Northern Communication Center, the agency’s only dispatch center north of Phoenix and one of just three in the state, covers calls from Mohave, Coconino, Yavapai, Navajo, Apache and Gila counties as well as large portions of the Navajo, Hopi and White Mountain Apache reservations. Dispatchers say that the center’s jurisdiction covers more than 70 percent of Arizona, which equates to an area larger than the state of Washington.

The planned closure would centralize calls from the northern Arizona area to employees based out of the dispatch center in Phoenix.

DPS confirmed the planned closure, saying the decision came from DPS director Frank Milstead.

The department’s jurisdiction mainly oversees highways, but officers often assist other agencies operating across the state and off highways.

A dispatcher at the northern Arizona center spoke to the Arizona Daily Sun under the condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation from their employer.

“I get involved with the people that I work with. I know their families. We feel like a big family here at DPS in Flagstaff,” the dispatcher said. “It just seems like that’s all going to go away when they take Flagstaff to Phoenix.”

Bart Graves, a spokesperson for DPS, stated they are only in the first phase of the closure, with no solid timeline set for the final closure date.

Graves said the first part of the plan is to move all Flagstaff dispatchers to the day shift and handle the graveyard shift out of Phoenix. After that, they plan to move the swing and day shifts to Phoenix as staffing levels dictate.

Graves explained that the decision was made by Milstead at the end of January.

“The AZDPS Northern Communications Center (NCC) was unable to maintain adequate staffing, stemming from attrition and recruitment challenges that placed a great burden on available staff at the NCC,” Graves said through email. “There are 29 allocated positions for the NCC of which only 15 are filled.”

Dispatchers blamed the recruitment challenges on the length of time it took to fill those positions, citing wait times of more than the suggested three to five months to be hired before training.

Scott Church, a dispatch supervisor at the Northern Communication Center, said the department surprised dispatchers at a meeting about the closure. Church disagreed with the closure, stating he felt there should be more done to recruit new employees to the center, and said they had not gone to college or high school job fairs recently.

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According to an email received by employees, the meeting was described as an attempt to help with stress management, rather than the announcement of the closure.

“It’s a good job, a good-paying job. It’s got benefits. There’s no reason not to take it,” Church said. “I want them to apologize for the fact of how they did it. They came up here and brought NiMarco's Pizza and said you’re fired, basically.”

'SECONDS SAVE LIVES'

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Dispatchers said they spend a lot of their training learning the geographic area of northern Arizona.

Suzanne Holbert, a retired dispatcher of 28 years in the Northern Communication Center, alleged that the traffic increases in the winter season, the lack of clear road designations in rural areas and spotty technology make dispatching in northern Arizona very different than the Phoenix metropolitan area.

“A lot of it is local knowledge that you build up, partly over time,” Holbert said. “The radio room generally has the knowledge you need for obscure landmarks. Northern Arizona, the majority of it, is very rural. Other officers don’t have back-up like you do in Phoenix."

Multiple dispatchers brought up the recent Railroad Springs shooting, alleging that while Phoenix dispatchers would likely have to do a web search for Railroad Springs to understand the area, they work two blocks from the location.

“There’s a quote they have, ‘dispatchers save seconds and seconds save lives,’” the anonymous dispatcher said. “Just those manner of seconds that Phoenix has to Google that address. They’re in Phoenix, how would they know where that address is?”

Graves said DPS has offered to transfer northern Arizona dispatchers to Phoenix or other parts of the department.

"We do not anticipate forcing any dispatcher to leave the agency," Graves said.

Dispatchers -- many of whom say they have roots, assets and family in Flagstaff -- are now concerned about their livelihood.

“We live in Flagstaff for a reason,” the anonymous worker said. “We don’t want to transfer to Phoenix. They’re banking on the experienced dispatchers transferring to Phoenix and we will work those radios. If some of us are forced to, I won’t.”

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Scott Buffon can be reached at sbuffon@azdailysun.com, on Twitter @scottbuffon or by phone at (928) 556-2250.

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