April 28, 2021 205 PM
PRESIDIO – Earlier this month Presidio resident Alfred Muniz got a call from his brother Victor Muniz who was experiencing terrible back pain. Victor was driving back from their family’s cattle ranch on FM 170 and wanted Alfred to send an ambulance to him.
Alfred pulled over near the First Presidio Bank and tried calling 911 a couple of times, but he couldn’t get through to a dispatcher. Rather than ringing, the line was silent. Alfred’s other brother who was with him then tried calling. He also couldn’t get through, even though they both had cell service.
Luckily Alfred saw Presidio Chief Deputy Joel Nuñez driving by who was then able to radio the dispatch and send an ambulance to Victor’s location.
This is one of a few reports Nuñez has received recently about residents unable to get in touch with a 911 dispatcher in Presidio. Another resident mentioned that when they called they got a message saying the call could not be transferred or completed as dialed.
“This is something that is concerning in a small little town like Presidio.” Nuñez said. “When you dial 911 you want to get an answer, right?”
“We’ve tested our 911 system. Our 911 system is functional. We haven’t heard of this happening in Marfa, or on the highway or anything like that [other than in Presidio],” he said.
If residents are having trouble reaching an emergency operator, Nunez recommends they call the Presidio County Dispatch Office’s direct line at 432-729-4911 and 432-729-4848. He also suggested they save these numbers in their phone contacts.
Monica Sanchez supervises the dispatch office for Presidio County. She said she has heard similar complaints from Presidio residents who tried calling 911 but were instead routed to dispatchers in Ojinaga.
“They’re pretty vocal when they speak to us and I don’t blame them,” Sanchez said. She added that while she does get complaints from time to time, it doesn’t happen on an everyday basis.
The same problem appears to be happening to Ojinaga residents. “I’ve had people call from Mexico wanting Mexico 911,” Sanchez said.
Currently there are no protocols for dealing with people who need assistance in Mexico that have had calls routed to the Presidio dispatch. “All they can do is keep trying and keep trying. That’s all we can give them, because we don’t have a direct line to Mexico’s 911.”
During the freeze in February, Presidio EMS Director Malynda Richardson dialed 911 but was misrouted to dispatchers across the border.
Richardson wasn’t having an emergency. Earlier she had tried calling the dispatch office’s direct line but wasn’t able to get through. She then wondered if the 911 line was operational. “I knew I was in trouble when they picked up in Spanish,” she said.
Many of the people spoken to for this story said that the problem stems from how the cell towers are directing the calls.
Marisa Quintanilla oversees the emergency dispatch services in the region through the Rio Grande Council of Governments. As she explained it, when someone calls 911 on their cell phone, the nearest cell tower picks up the signal and then routes it to a nearby dispatch office.
Considering Presidio’s proximity to the border, Quintanilla said it’s very possible that a call placed in Presidio could be picked up by a tower in Mexico that then forwards the signal to dispatchers in Ojinaga.
While Quintanilla, who is based in El Paso, hasn’t heard of these exact issues, she said there are many problems with emergency calls being misrouted in the region as there are only three cell towers in the tri-county area. If one of the towers is overloaded with calls, it will begin forwarding them to the others. That’s how, she says, 911 calls are sent to the wrong dispatch.
“It’s the lack of infrastructure that we have within the tri-county area to properly send that call where it needs to be,” Quintanilla said. “A lot of the cell companies have told us loud and clear that they won’t build upon that infrastructure because the cost and return on their investment is not there.”
At the time, it is unclear if residents who are unable to connect with a 911 operator, like Alfred, are experiencing the same issue as those who have been misrouted to dispatchers in Mexico.
The FCC, which regulates cell tower operations in the United States, said in a statement to The Big Bend Sentinel, “The public needs reliable access to 911 during emergencies. FCC staff are looking into this matter.”
“You never know what can happen,” Alfred said. “Somebody could be in a worse situation and not be able to have access to the 911 dispatcher.”
Have you had trouble getting through to a 911 dispatcher? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 432-729-4342.