Santa Barbara County is moving forward to separate fire and ambulance from law enforcement dispatching services despite opposition from the sheriff and current dispatchers.
The Board of Supervisors, acting in that capacity as well as directors of the County Fire Protection District, unanimously approved several actions that represent what County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig called “a major step” toward creating a Regional Fire Communications Facility.
Hartwig said the discussion for the board on Nov. 16 was “more about cooperation, partnership and regionalization as it is about dispatch.”
Essentially, the decisions approved agreements to provide fire dispatch services for Santa Maria, Lompoc, Guadalupe and Santa Barbara fire departments and the Montecito and Carpinteria-Summerland fire protection districts.
The Regional Fire Communications Facility, which Hartwig said will be referred to as the RFCF, also will dispatch ambulance services countywide using whichever provider the county selects in a separate ongoing process.
At a cost of approximately $11 million, the 6,300-square-foot RFCF will be created in the Emergency Operations Center, where the expansion of the Joint Information Center will be included in that cost.
The construction cost will be proportionately shared by the county and the participating fire agencies, which will shoulder $3.3 million of the annual $4.9 million operating costs, with the remaining $1.6 million to be covered by the ambulance service provider.
Supervisors also directed the staff to work on creating a backup public safety answering point inside the Santa Maria Police Department facility that could pick up the dispatch duties if the one inside the Emergency Operations Center is disabled by a disaster.
Deputy Fire Chief Rob Heckman said the plans are to create a 2,000-square-foot backup center in an unused space inside the Police Station at a cost of about $1 million that will allow shared use of some facilities.
A report to the board indicated the existing Sheriff’s Office dispatch center will continue to serve as the primary answering point for calls to 911, while the fire services dispatch will become the secondary answering point.
That means if a 911 caller needs fire services, calls will be redirected from the sheriff’s center to the RFCF, which Hartwig said will provide borderless dispatching for fire and ambulance services.
But Sheriff Bill Brown argued against separating fire and emergency medical services from law enforcement dispatching, noting the center has a proven record of responding to not only day-to-day events but also major disasters.
He said keeping the dispatchers all in the same room allows direct communication between them without the need for making phone calls or transferring calls, which causes delays, and creating a separate dispatch center could add up to 118 seconds to response times.
He also said keeping the dispatchers together would result in “substantial savings to taxpayers,” while separating them would result in duplicate services and increased costs.
“The national trend is to consolidate, not deconsolidate,” Brown said. “No one else is doing this.”
Brown’s position was supported by several current dispatchers, some of whom said the board has not heard the opinions of those doing the jobs every day and has not actually watched the dispatch center in operation.
“Borderless dispatch is currently happening,” said Ben Johnson, a dispatcher supervisor. “It exists. It could be better, but it doesn’t cost $11 million to do it.”
Joe Ayala, a 23-year veteran of the communications center, said “right now, we’ve got a one-stop shop” but the board can expect caller frustration to increase as they are repeatedly transferred.
But supervisors were not swayed, indicating the separation of dispatch services has already been decided.
“This is about expanding our emergency response,” Board Chairman and 4th District Supervisor Bob Nelson said.
Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann said it’s important to note it represents a partnership with all the departments across the county.
“I just don’t think the public should wait on getting borderless dispatch any longer,” 1st District Supervisor Das Williams said.