ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Hidalgo County has started to see the benefits of more than $3 million in state funding to enhance communication for emergency responders in the region that includes the rugged Boot Heel and remote stretches of borderland.
“It gets a little nerve-racking when they go out of cell service or radio service where there’s not contact. For the sake of all responders we’re trying to improve that communications,” said Scott Richins, emergency manager for Hidalgo County.
Richins said funding for digital radios that improve coverage and clarity is critical considering the distance from the county’s offices in Lordsburg to remote locations.
“It’s a two to two and a half hour drive, depending on which corner of the county you want to get to. A lot of that is dirt road. Some of that is ranch road,” he said.
County officials credit Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for spearheading the effort to fund an enhanced emergency communications systems for first responders in the region after they voiced their concerns.
“This is a huge concern of the governor, as it should be,” said Kelly Hamilton, acting secretary for the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
“The short term fixes were: let’s get some mobile equipment, some portable equipment in there, towers and repeaters and those sorts of things,” Hamilton said. That system will be in place by March.
The state is also funding long-term communication improvements, including building a permanent radio tower.
“That’s the biggest thing for us. As soon as they’re done, we’ll actually have communication throughout the entire Hidalgo Country,” said Tisha Green, Hidalgo County manager.
The enhanced communication system includes EMS and ambulance services, the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office, Lordsburg Police and Fire departments and five volunteer fire fighting teams. For the first time, the two school districts in the county will have radio communication with school buses that shuttle students through rural areas and the ability to contact emergency services if necessary.
Local law enforcement will also have channels to communicate with State Police and the Border Patrol.
“We’re very thankful to the state for stepping up and helping us get some effective communications,” Green said.
The state is also working with Verizon and AT&T to add infrastructure in the area for residents who currently have spotty or no cell phone service at all. This is about more than convenience in remote areas of New Mexico like Hidalgo County, Kelly said.
“If you live in Albuquerque you can stick your head out the door of your house and yell for help. But when you’re out in the middle of nowhere in the Boot Heel, you’ve got to have something else. There’s nobody for miles, and miles around,” Kelly said.