When calling 911, it’s David vs. Goliath
Last updated 1/5/2022 at Noon
In another of those “who knew?” stories, an under-the-radar Sisters business has a large footprint beyond our borders. In this case, Noble 911 Services, headquartered on South Elm Street. Competing against multimillion-dollar entities like Century Link (now Lumen Technologies) and Motorola, Noble is the classic case of the little engine that could.
If you had to call 911 from Sisters Country, you would land on a Noble-developed-and-sold system sitting in Bend. It would be the same scenario if you called 911 from any of a number of counties in Oregon. Farther away, Noble, founded and led by Joel Palanuk, is a smaller, albeit key component in another 100 emergency call-operations around the country.
Noble can do any or all of it, from design to integration. Their major market is within Oregon, with systems they sell in partnership with national players like AT&T who provide the hardware. There are hundreds of obstacles a small business encounters when starting up. Competing with companies thousands of times Noble’s size is, surprisingly, not the biggest barrier to entry.
In Palanuk’s world, overcoming regulators and bureaucracies that favor large incumbents is the hardest hill to climb. He knows something about hills. After an 18-year career on the tech side of the phone company (Century Link) he struck out on his own and created the Sisters Stampede, the highly visible annual mountain-biking race held here every Memorial Day. He sold the Stampede, after establishing it as a premier event, and birthed Noble.
Palanuk credits his wife, Shawna, for launching Noble.
“She told me that if I could start and grow a successful cycling event, imagine what could be possible using my experience from telecommunications,” he said.
Anybody selling to state or federal agencies has had to deal with often-archaic business practices that have occasional political overtones. Palanuk finds himself having to ask questions that are not always popular or that challenge the status quo. Being self-assured and a persuasive, polite questioner has kept him in the game against sometimes daunting odds.
Noble has made its mark and is the first player in the 911 systems game that isn’t backed by thousands of employees and billions of dollars in capital. Others, seeing Noble’s success at breaking into the market, have joined the fray. Motorola for one, who is both a vendor to Noble and now a competitor. Motorola has a market cap of $46 billion on sales of $7.4 billion.
Palanuk’s business now employs eight, two of whom came on board last year. They are the kinds of jobs idealized for Sisters: high tech, paying family wages. He’s proud of a milestone, telling The Nugget, “We have reached a point where we can pay benefits like health care premiums for our team.”
The business can boast providing the first text-to-911 systems in Oregon, inaugurated in Deschutes County. More impressive is Noble’s success in mobile 911 systems. A prime example was wildfire in the fall of 2020 that took out the 911 facility in Clackamas County, a Noble client. In under a day Noble reconfigured 911 calls and dispatches to remote laptop computer users forced out of their offices.
Palanuk said that the 911 scene has intensified since the onset of COVID-19. Among the changes begun with the pandemic are the growing number of suicide-related calls to 911. In his mind, 911 dispatchers are underappreciated, and every bit as deserving of first-responder status as those in the police and fire services.
Noble itself is on the front lines with 24/7 tech support. They are maintenance hawks, working remotely and proactively to monitor and assess potential malfunctions or system failures before their clients are even aware of their existence.
Close to home, Deschutes County is their first and prized installation, but if Palanuk has his way there will be hundreds more to showcase down the road — a road with the occasional dragon to be slain as he competes in a world of giants.