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Featured Citizen – The Oro Valley Police Communications Bureau

In Safe Hands

We’ve all had to make that 9-1-1 call at some point. But do we appreciate the fact that the 9-1-1 call center is always ready to handle our emergency — 24 hours a day, 365 days per year?

The unseen heroes that take our 9-1-1 calls are able to quickly and competently organize police and fire department response – all when seconds may mean the difference between life and death.

A Great Sacrifice Leads for a Safer Community

In 2008, a Tucson PD officer was fatally wounded during a long car chase that zig-zagged from northwest Tucson to Mount Lemmon. During this long chase across different jurisdictions, the officers in-pursuit had difficulty communicating on the same radio frequency.

The tragedy that befell this officer led to collaboration among the overlapping agencies of greater Tucson: it was resolved that they would build a better source of communication for first responders.

And so was born the Pima County Wireless Integrated Network (PCWIN), a state-of-the-art, multi-modality system that links 60 public safety and public service agencies from Tucson to Ajo, Sahuarita to Mount Lemmon, and Rincon Valley to Avra Valley.

Thanks to the PCWIN – and one noble officer’s great sacrifice — all agencies now share common communication channels.

The Department that Never Sleeps

9-1-1 calls are handled by the Oro Valley Police Communications Bureau, a 24-hour emergency response center that never closes. The 15 employees of the Bureau handle over 54,000 calls a year — or 150 calls every day. In any given year, they dispatch the police department to about 20,000 service requests.

The Oro Valley Police Department — in conjunction with the Communications Bureau – employs multiple layers of communications technologies, including two-way radios, mobile data, GPS, laptops/computers, and telephone systems.

Life-or-Death Decision-Makers

Until recently, 9-1-1 call center operators were listed by the federal government as “Office and Administrative Support Occupations”. But this characterization grossly under-characterized their life-saving work.

These highly trained employees are just as critical as the police officers, fire fighters, and medics who arrive at the site of an emergency. They have to keep a cool head while talking to callers in-crisis, as well as victims of crimes — often while the emergency or crime is still in progress. The Communications team also coordinate and follow-through with the police and fire department for the duration of their response efforts.

A New Title for Lifesavers

As part of the 911 SAVES Act, the federal government has reclassified what have long been called “911 operators” to the more accurate title of “Public Safety Communicators” (PST).

The reclassification better captures the pivotal role that PSTs play, and allows for better assessment of – and potential treatment for – the high demands the job places on these critical employees’ mental and physical health.

Partner Agencies

Oro Valley Police Department most commonly works with the following agencies:

  • Pima County Sherriff’s Department
  • Arizona Department of Public Safety
  • Tucson Police Department
  • Marana Police Department
  • Golder Ranch Fire District

Q & A with Ben Johnson, Public Safety Telecommunications Supervisor, Oro Valley Police Department

What was the long-term result of the 2008 police tragedy?

I was not a dispatcher in 2008…[but] I have come to learn that this event highlighted a critical need for radio interoperability between local agencies. While the loss of Officer Hite was a tragedy, it spearheaded the implementation of the Pima County Wireless Integrated Network radio system which has assisted countless first responders during critical incidents.

Who took the lead on re-inventing the 911 call center? Did this come down from the feds, or was Pima County already working on this improvement?

The remodel of the communications center in 2021 was led by ECC Manager Michelle DeVault. She was supported by Town of Oro Valley IT staff, Pima County IT, PCWIN and Motorola/Century Link staff.

Is there an anecdote that illustrates how the new system is leading to better/more efficient emergency response?

There are numerous times we have used the PCWIN radio system to allow for direct communication from an OVPD officer to Pima County Sheriff’s Deputy. During these incidents, OVPD officers don’t have to do anything, in communications we make the radio patch, and responding PCSD Deputies switch their radios to the appropriate channel. This has been used during the pursuit or search for suspects in the Oro Valley area.

Is this a statewide initiative, or just Pima County? (In other words, is OV ahead of the game?)

If you are referring to the remodel of the communications center, this was a need based on the age of the center at the time. The center had furniture that had exceeded it expected life span by several years. The furniture was not built for our current needs, for example, it had large computer cabinets that were mostly unused due to the reduced size of computer equipment. Removing those cabinets allowed for bigger desk and a more open concept in the center.

Is there anything that can still be improved?

I would say the biggest improvement would be for greater public understanding and education for what role emergency communication centers and public safety telecommunicators play in emergency services. The lack of understanding for what information is needed when calling 911 can add stress to an already stressful situation. I think a greater understanding would not only make it easier to access emergency service but would also create a greater appreciation for the unseen responders during an emergency. Lastly, if public education and understanding were greater, it would help with recruitment for PSTs, which is a nationwide struggle for ECCs [Emergency Call Centers].

Do’s and Don’ts for 9-1-1 calls:

  • DO call for true emergencies. If you are unsure if it’s an emergency, CALL
  • DO know the location of the emergency.
  • DO your best to stay calm and answer all questions.
  • DO text 911 if you cannot make a voice call.
  • DO NOT  just hang up the phone if you call 911 by accident.
  • DO NOT prank call 911.
  • DO NOT let children play with “old” cell phones. They can still call 911.