Radio backup — everywhere

Central dispatch center would connect police throughout Cochise County on one network

BISBEE — Consolidating radio communication and record keeping into a central Cochise County dispatch center will enable police from any local department to access more information in the field, while keeping in contact with other law enforcement officers in the area.

The plan to centralize dispatch operations has been an ongoing mission for Sierra Vista and Cochise County officials for a decade, Sheriff Mark Dannels and city Police Chief Tom Alinen said Thursday. In 2005, Alinen headed up a cooperative study directed by city and county officials to determine the cost of combining each agency’s dispatch center.

“After two years of studying call loads and everything else, it came back initially at $6.9 million to get it done, which nobody wanted to do,” Alinen said. “Eventually, I went back to the company doing the study and asked them what we could get done for around $3 million.”

In the decade since the plan was first discussed, both Sierra Vista and the sheriff’s department have seen dramatic changes in how area law enforcement agencies handle dispatch operations. The advent of new radio and computer technologies have resulted in new transmission frequencies for public safety agencies and a demand to move data — records on suspects, vehicles, previous calls and other vital information — into the field when authorities are at the scene of an event.

Dannels said over time, a three phase plan was developed after it became clear that more than just the sheriff’s department needed an effective countywide network.

The plan includes the installation of a microwave transmission system linking towers throughout Cochise County, which is expected to be completed early next year. Existing towers are being outfitted with new equipment to connect county government offices in Benson, Willcox, Sierra Vista and other locations to shared computer servers housed at the county’s central offices in Bisbee.

While the microwave network helps Cochise County government, it also serves the needs of the sheriff’s department and other county law enforcement agencies. The towers provide communications between portable radios in the field and the central dispatch center. The new system will also allow transmissions between devices in the field, regardless of which law enforcement agency is connected to the network or where they are located.

Alinen said two radio frequencies will be utilized through the dispatch center, serving agencies using VHS and those using 700 megahertz and higher.

“The other thing that is part of this that I’m really excited about is the portable radios for schools and ranchers,” Dannels said. “I think that’s exciting, but we can’t implement that until we get the 700 MHz system up, which is not until March.”

Alinen said the work currently being completed to upgrade the county’s existing equipment includes replacing the old microwave dishes on the network of towers across the county that supports the sheriff’s radio network with new dishes capable of carrying the 700 MHz signal.

“Those are going to be the carriers of the radio, data and Spillman,” Alinen said.

Currently, the sheriff’s department handles record keeping through its Spillman database computer program for its own department and for police and fire departments in Benson, Bisbee, Douglas, Huachuca City and Willcox. Sierra Vista uses the same computer program to serve its own department and Fort Huachuca fire and police, along with fire departments in Sierra Vista, Fry, Palominas and Whetstone.

As part of Phase Two, Dannels said he intends to spend a $500,000 grant recently awarded by Gov. Ducey as part of a border security initiative to merge the sheriff’s and Sierra Vista’s computer servers and centralize dispatch record-keeping for all public safety agencies in the county.

Phase Three of the plan will be determining a location — somewhere in Sierra Vista — where a central dispatch center for all of Cochise County will be located.

Dannels said the timing of the effort is important for local public safety agencies, as well as the county. He said there is a statewide effort to reduce the number of 911 dispatch centers in Arizona to one center per county.

“We have eight 911 services in the county right now,” Dannels said, “and everything is paid for by the state,” Dannels said each of the emergency systems has its own equipment, all of which is “basically the same.”

“(The state is) pushing to create one 911 answering system per county, because of the cost factor. So that’s one of the reasons we’re looking at consolidating our dispatches, because we then could combine our equipment,” Dannels said.

Cost of the new centralized dispatch and data center is estimated at $17 million, most of which has been donated to Cochise County by the Howard Buffett Foundation.

“Everything is paid for, it’s just a question of getting all the work done,” Dannels said.

Combining dispatch centers should result in cost savings for Cochise County, Sierra Vista, and all the other local agencies using the new system, according to the sheriff.

“Indications from nearly all local law enforcement agencies are that they are onboard with the idea,” Dannels said.

Alinen echoed that comment, “We’re committed to a joint system, we just have to figure out where and how.”

Dannels said the combined dispatch center is “a better way of doing business.”

“It serves the purpose of the multi-badge, one mission approach to public safety.”

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