The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted recently to split the dispatch centers for county fire and the Sheriff. The board followed that decision with an even more troubling choice of constructing a new dispatch center for county fire near the existing joint-use facility.
In our increasingly disaster-prone county, it’s unfathomable that supervisors feel comfortable dismantling a key, integrated public safety node while turning their backs on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create two geographically separate facilities to provide resilience and redundancy to our emergency responder community.
The decision to split the facility was the first mistake. Communities across the state and on the Central Coast are increasingly integrating fire and police functions to improve service and efficiency. Many calls to the dispatch center often result in responses by both fire and sheriff. Think traffic accident, house fire or wildfire.
That’s the very essence of why communities continue to invest in emergency operations centers and unified commands for larger disasters. Willingly separating our first responders is simply a bad strategy.
There certainly is goodness in having two dispatch centers that would be geographically separate to provide redundancy and resilience to the first-responder network. Putting one dispatch center in the South County and one north of the Santa Ynez Mountains would seem like common sense. We’ve seen fires in the Gaviota Pass shut down Highway 101 and landslides on Highway 154 that totally isolate northern Santa Barbara County from South County. If one dispatch center got shut down because of fire, earthquake, flood or whatever else, the other could pick up the slack.
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But supervisors made a second big mistake. They chose to place the new, second dispatch center in the same disaster-prone canyon as the current dispatch center. In fact, the County Emergency Operations Center, Sheriff’s Office HQ, County Jail, and Fire Department HQ are all in that same canyon. That’s way too many eggs in one basket. When the Jesusita Fire tore through South County in 2009, the entire canyon was ordered to evacuate.
While I was on the board of the Santa Barbara County Chapter of the American Red Cross, our local Red Cross HQ on upper State Street was evacuated due to a wildfire. But because we had just opened a new facility in Santa Maria — with redundant communications — we were able to maintain continuous service throughout the county with only a two-second gap. With over 200 people using two separate evacuation shelters, it was crucial to the community that we were able to provide an uninterrupted operational capability.
As a footnote, most workers in the dispatch center live north of the Gaviota tunnel. Positioning the new fire dispatch center in the north would have been an environmentally superior choice and eliminated thousands of trips per year by north-south commuters.
The decision to double down on risk and put the new fire dispatch center in the same fire-prone canyon as the existing dispatch center, was decided — like almost every major decision in our county — on a 3-2 south/north vote. The three South County supervisors again imposed their will on the two North County supervisors. Someday our county’s residents will pay a steep price for their decision to concentrate so much critical infrastructure in the south.