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Public Safety Dispatch Center

Santa Barbara County staff was directed to look into the cost of building a new Regional Fire Communications Facility in the parking lot adjacent to the existing Public Safety Dispatch Center, above, in addition to two other options.

Incompatible radio systems and a shortage of space will likely rule out Santa Maria Police Station as the location for a new regional fire and emergency medical services communication center that’s separate from the sheriff’s dispatch center.

That was one conclusion May 7 from a discussion of the Public Safety Dispatch Center by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, who unanimously voted to have staff return with cost estimates for three options.

Based on the discussion, a new fire dispatch facility could end up being built in the South County right next to either the existing dispatch center or by expanding the existing Emergency Operations Center, figuratively putting all the county’s communication eggs in one disaster-prone basket.

Should that be the Board of Supervisors’ ultimate choice, many of the people who would staff the new fire dispatch center would continue commuting from their North County homes, according to 4th District Supervisor Peter Adam.

He said the county would also lack the backup of a redundant communication system in another area — one of the goals for splitting dispatch services — if some kind of natural disaster took out one or both South County dispatch sites.

But supervisors voted to have the staff return with estimated costs for expanding the Emergency Operations Center to house the Regional Fire Communication Facility or building the new center in the parking lot adjacent to the sheriff’s Public Safety Dispatch Center.

Those were the two staff-recommended options, but 1st District Supervisor Das Williams added a third option — coming up with a property and a price for building the fire dispatch center elsewhere.

Adam didn’t like either of the staff-recommended options.

“First of all, the redundancy here is not accomplished by putting it in the same place as everything else,” Adam said. “I want this thing in the North County someplace, and you know the real estate’s cheaper [and] it’s close to the workforce that’s going to work there,” he continued.

“You know, we have 6,000 people a day leaving Lompoc to drive down here to go to work. And those same people are going to be manning these dispatch posts, in all likelihood.”

Adam said he'd like to see a new facility built somewhere between Lompoc and Buellton.

But he supported the motion after Williams added the direction to investigate an alternative site elsewhere.

The staff already looked into combining the new fire dispatch operation with Santa Maria’s state-of-the-art communication facility in the Police Station.

But Santa Maria uses a fully encrypted UHF Motorola computer-assisted dispatch system operating at 700 MHz for both its fire and police dispatch services.

Other fire departments in the county and most of the state use an unencrypted VHF system at 800 MHz.

“This really represents the most significant stumbling block to this partnership,” said Bernard Melekian, assistant county executive officer. “The city has made it clear the use of the Motorola CAD is a requirement for partnering with them.”

He added, “The fire agencies in this county, including County Fire, would prefer not to transition to Motorola CAD.”

Melekian said “bridging” technology exists that can allow county fire agencies to communicate with the Santa Maria dispatchers, but it would increase the costs and make the operation more complicated.

Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann noted most of the county’s disasters happen in the South County, but she favored expanding the EOC.

“We really don’t have an ideal option here,” she said, but added, “It seems to me there would be real advantages to the EOC.”

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Lee Central Coast Newspapers associate editor Mike Hodgson covers Santa Barbara County government and events and issues in Santa Ynez Valley. Follow him on Twitter @MHodgsonSYVNews.