EUNICE — Emergency personnel in Eunice want the city’s elected officials to solve more than “half the problem.”
After a workshop and two public hearings in July, the city appears ready to reverse years of resistance to joining the Lea County Communications Authority (LCCA).
Part of the problem, according to Eunice police and fire chiefs, involves inability of their respective agencies to maintain communication through the dispatcher when the other is handling an emergency situation.
With only one console and one dispatcher on duty, only one person can use the radio at a time — the police (PD), the firefighter (FD) or the emergency medical service (EMS) — but more than one emergency may be happening.
“Currently when the dispatcher tones out fire/EMS they are unable to communicate with LCCA or PD for an average of 64 seconds,” City Manager Jordan Yutzy told the audience at the first hearing. “We are only able to communicate on one channel at a time. If a first responder calls in, they will not go through.”
Yutzy also pointed out the number of calls in the last decade have more than doubled, 2,758 in fiscal year 2012 to 5,556 in FY 2021.
That problem can be resolved by hiring more dispatchers and upgrading equipment at a total cost approaching $8 million, Yutzy said. At the workshop, some residents said they would be willing to pay higher taxes, if necessary, to pay for those upgrades and keep the dispatch center in Eunice.
The other part of the problem is the delay, averaging 35 seconds, between a caller dialing 911 and emergency personnel being dispatched. From any location in Lea County, 911 calls go directly to the LCCA.
Police Chief Casey Arcidez told the council in the second hearing there was no doubt the city needs two consoles, one for police and one for the fire department.
“As I said earlier, give us the money, we’ll make it happen. There’s no doubt in my mind. We’re going to have to have more dispatchers,” Arcidez said. “We’re going to have to have more equipment to make this work.”
But even if the $8 million is found and dedicated to upgrading and hiring more dispatchers, the police chief said, that still solves only part of the problem.
“WE’RE THE MIDDLE MAN. When a 911 caller goes to them (LCCA), they have to get hold of our dispatch. Our dispatch calls our police officer or EMS,” Arcidez continued. “So, if we do get the equipment, we’re only fixing half the problem. We still have that lag in time. (Information) should be coming straight to us in a quicker amount of time.”
Police Lt. John Fray emphasized the local dispatchers do a great job with what they have but he believes the situation could be made better, for the dispatchers, the first responders and the public.
“This isn’t a dispatcher problem. It’s not their fault,” Fray said. “They do an excellent job. It has nothing to do with how they do their job. It’s just communications.”
The police lieutenant relayed an incident that occurred just a few days before the second hearing that emphasized the need for better communications equipment when fire and police conflicted due to simultaneous events.
“What if it was somebody who was sick and not breathing? Now, we’re on a scene where somebody has a gun,” Lt. Fray speculated. “The poor dispatcher has to figure out, well, I gotta do both, but what am I going to do? I have to make sure you’re good, but make sure you’re good.”
Councilor Jerry Corral asked for clarification, “Do you feel this is a situation that’s happening more and more often? Or is it a constant situation that you’ve had to deal with a number of years?”
Fray responded, “It’s something that I’ve become use to, but you start thinking what if somebody gets hurt?”
Councilor Joann Pender also relayed a story of personal experience involving a 911 call.
“So, everybody is doing everything they’ve been trained to do. Even if we upgrade, that still concerns me, the lag between the 911 call (and local emergency response),” Pend-er concluded.
Eunice dispatchers Robert Lyle and Kathy Walters toured the LCCA facility in northern Hobbs on the morning of the second Eunice hearing. They met with LCCA director Angela Martinez.
“It’s a good facility. The director is very, very nice. She sat down with us and explained everything, what all would happen, how we would be trained and what we would be doing,” Walters told the News-Sun. “We will be cross-trained. … There are a bunch of different stations set up and we would be trained on all of them.”
Walters’ comments at previous meetings tended to resist being absorbed into LCCA, but after the second hearing and visiting the facility, her tone softened.
“I’ve never had an issue with LCCA. We work together now. I like all of them. They’re always really nice,” Walters concluded. “It was just the fact that I didn’t want to have to leave here. I like it here (at the Eunice dispatch center). (The LCCA) is a good facility and it will be a very good place to work. They’ll take good care of us up there. I don’t have any doubts about that.”
After receiving assurance certain employee benefits will be carried over for the local dispatchers going to county employment, Lyle asked Yutzy specifically when the change would take place.
“It will probably be about a three- to six-month process,” Yutzy said. Among official actions that likely must happen will be approvals of the Eunice City Council, the Hobbs City Commission and the Lea County Commission, after which Eunice would be given a seat on the LCCA board of directors.
LCCA currently is funded through an agreement between Lea County and the City of Hobbs. Other communities in the county have been invited to participate, especially since all 911 calls come through the LCCA by state policy but have resisted.