Community discusses possible move of emergency calls to county

By John Earp

This past Monday evening in the Jal Community Center, the city hosted a town hall meeting designed to give information and to hear feedback from the community regarding the possible move of Jal’s dispatch services to the Lea County Communications Authority in Hobbs, where the overwhelming majority of dispatch services for communities in the county are carried out. According to the Lea County Communications Authority (LCCA) website, all emergency services in the county except for Jal are covered exclusively by LCCA. “Agencies we currently support: Lea County Sheriff, Hobbs Police Department, Eunice Police Department, Lovington Police Department, Tatum Police Department, Hobbs Fire Department, Knowles Fire Department, Maljamar Fire Department, Monument Fire Department, Lovington Fire Department, Tatum Fire Department, and Eunice Fire Department.”

Mayor Stephen Aldridge opened up the meeting by asking folks “to be polite and courteous, and see if we can’t figure out what we’re dealing with here. This isn’t the first time this subject’s come up in Jal.” County Manager Mike Gallagher was present to share with the meeting what the county’s dispatch center (LCCA) has to offer, adding that he was not there to advocate for Jal’s dispatch services being moved over as part of LCCA. Aldridge told those present that the question was whether to combine dispatch services with LCCA, keep them in Jal, or do a kind of hybrid, where some calls would still be fielded in Jal.

Several residents, including some of the present dispatchers for Jal Police Department, expressed their concerns about losing the personal touch of knowing the dispatchers and callers on a first-name basis as well as the thorough knowledge of the town that Jal’s own dispatchers have always had. Also of concern was the potential loss of the jobs for Jal’s current dispatchers. County Manager Mike Gallagher mentioned that if Jal decided to go with LCCA, the county would open up several new dispatch positions at LCCA, adding that the benefits and salaries were excellent for county employees. He said Jal dispatchers would need to apply for the jobs like anybody else. In addition, he noted that if Jal’s dispatchers were hired by the county, they would retain their government employment years of service. City Manager Wesley Hooper said there had been multiple meetings with staff, EMS, Fire, Police, and the LCCA board, describing the technology LCCA has is very impressive. He said, “We just want to gather all the information possible, in order for the council to be able to make the best decision for the community.” Gallagher added that since 1997, all 911 calls in the county have been answered by the county sheriff’s office, with emergency responders being dispatched to wherever the incident was.

Jal EMS Chief Whitney Moody spoke of the safety and accuracy of the LCCA’s equipment as being definitely worth considering. One of the big issues, according to Hooper, was that the equipment Jal presently uses has had issues with service due to the difficulty in finding anyone close by who is able to service it, adding that they presently have to have a serviceman come up from San Antonio, Texas, to service the equipment, and that this creates a real problem when they need the equipment to be ready to work well all the time.

Another point that was raised regarding the possibility of moving over to LCCA that was mentioned by the mayor was the possibility that the State of New Mexico next year may decide to require communities to consolidate their 911 call centers, as they have been pushing for this for many years.

According to Gallagher, the state would not grant a 911 trunk line to Jal, which would be a prerequisite for any 911 call center anywhere, adding that one would be cost prohibitive even on the outside chance of the state permitting it. Presently, all calls to the Jal Police Department are to the non-emergency line. Aldridge said that in some cases, insurance companies might be able to deny paying for ambulance services that are not called into an emergency 911 line. Aldridge said the meeting was more progress than he had seen on this issue. County Commissioner Pat Sims mentioned that when Eunice was first considering joining LCCA for their dispatch services, he “was one hundred percent against it.” He said, “I heard the same kinds of things y’all heard. I like my little town. I wish we could stay that way forever. Welcome to the new normal. I ain’t happy about a whole lot of things in it, but because of the New Mexico legal situation…I don’t know how many of y’all vote, but if we would all start voting, we wouldn’t have the legal problems that we’re dealing with, why we’re not supposed to send an ambulance out if we call the fire department [directly].” He continued, “When I got the complaints [about LCCA] I went and found out why.” Sims said, “LCCA has gotten a bad rap. In my looking into this, the new technology—I don’t know if it will work—you know, updates is not always better, but the stuff with mental health is really, really neat.” Sims said he is now glad Eunice went with LCCA.

If Jal moves its dispatch services to LCCA, the decision will be made by vote of the Jal City Council, unless the governor mandates it first. Councilors Seifts, Ward and Trevino were present at the meeting. Mayor Aldridge said the meeting was a good first step. Seifts mentioned that if Jal joins LCCA, it could potentially help reduce homeowner’s insurance. Aldridge encouraged those present to bring solutions to the next meeting.

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