By Rosalie Rayburn, Albuquerque Journal (New Mexico)
Rio Rancho’s spread-out development pattern has posed a problem for the folks who handle emergency 9-1-1 calls. Now, they’re scrambling to adapt to a federal mandate that poses another hurdle.
Beginning in January, public safety agencies had to comply with a Federal Communications Commission requirement to operate their radio communications on narrower bandwidth as part of an effort to free up airspace to support more users.
Radio communications are used by dispatchers who receive emergency calls to contact officers in the field and provide backup information to them on site.
For the Sandoval County Regional Emergency Communications Center, the FCC requirement worsened the problem of dead spots on an already strained system, center manager Monte Roberts said.
Roberts declined to specify the location of the dead spots for security reasons, but said there are times when officers lose the dispatch during calls for service and they rely on this support.
“If an officer needed assistance dealing with an alterca- for backup,” Roberts said, “It could delay backup response to that officer.”
The situation is frustrating for officers in the field who need to check in for backup information. Often they have to resort to using cellphones to communicate when they lose radio signals, Roberts said.
The center has been responsible for dispatching police, fire and rescue services throughout the county since 2003, when several dispatch services operating in several different communities were consolidated at the police headquarters on Quantum Road in Rio Rancho. It receives about 400,000 emergency 9-1-1 calls annually.
About 52 percent of the calls come from Rio Rancho, 34 percent from Sandoval County, 4 percent from Corrales and 6 percent from the town of Bernalillo. Each entity contributes proportionally to the center’s overall annual $3 million budget.
As new subdivisions like Enchanted Hills sprung up on the western and northern fringes of Rio Rancho, the center has had to increase the number of dispatch consoles at its center from 10 to 18 and expand itscommunication system. The expansion involved adding radio equipment on towers at Northern and Rainbow, in the Enchanted Hills neighborhood and on the Santa Ana Star Center.
“That provided pretty good coverage, but there were marginal areas,” Roberts said.
When they modified their radio equipment to comply with the FCC mandate, Roberts said, they lost the ability to communicate in areas that previously had spotty coverage.
Roberts said the immediate fix is to move the tower from the Enchanted Hills location on Santa Fe Boulevard and install it atop a hill overlooking Corrales. The dispatch center will also locate communications equipment on a new cellphone tower that a private company has erected at Santa Fe Boulevard.
“That’s our Band-Aid, phase one, approach to this,” Roberts said.
The tower will be on Angel Road near the border between Corrales and Rio Rancho. Some Rio Rancho residents who live nearby objected to the tower but the Corrales planning and zoning commission, which was responsible for the approval, gave the go ahead because local officials made a case that it was needed for public safety.
“It’s absolutely important for public safety. Angel Tower will be a key component in communications in the southern part of the county,” Corrales Fire Chief Anthony Martinez said.
He said they plan to landscape the area around the tower to address local residents’ concerns.
The $250,000 to $300,000 estimated project cost will be covered jointly by Rio Rancho, Sandoval County and Corrales. Rio Rancho owns the tower, Sandoval County has secured a Homeland Security grant of $116,000.
Roberts hopes to have the equipment installed and the tower moved and operational by fall.
Once operational, the system expansion will improve dispatch call service for Santa Ana Pueblo, Sandia Pueblo, Bernalillo, Corrales and along U.S. 550, Roberts said.