Separating Santa Barbara County law enforcement and fire/medical dispatch services isn’t official yet, but the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday picked the Emergency Operations Center as a preferred site for a second dispatch center.
Law enforcement, fire and medical services for the county’s unincorporated areas are dispatched out of the same building at the Sheriff’s Department headquarters at 4434 Calle Real, but the fire and sheriff’s departments have butted heads for years over the joint venture.
Fire agencies have come together behind a consolidated fire and emergency medical services dispatch center to create “borderless” response – sending the closest resource, regardless of jurisdiction, to respond to calls.
That’s what the Board of Supervisors wants, too, and clearly sees a separate dispatch center as the way to achieve it.
“The board can only choose between the consolidation of fire agencies, most of our fire agencies, under one fire/EMS system, or the status quo – that’s the only two options we’ve got,” First District Supervisor Das Williams said.
Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino voted for a separate dispatch center but against the EOC location, and said he wanted a location outside the South Coast in case a disaster affected both facilities.
“I guess for me the biggest disappointment is, because I have been to Ventura and seen what nearest-resource response looks like – the average person has no idea that they’re not getting that in Santa Barbara County right now,” he said.
Separating the dispatch functions would cost about $2.5 million more a year, with 12 additional positions, according to the County Executive Office.
Partner agencies that join the Regional Fire Communications Facility (other fire departments) would contribute to the operating cost, and the Montecito and Carpinteria-Summerland departments have already authorized negotiations with the county.
The Sheriff’s Department would keep operating the law enforcement dispatch center as the primary Public Safety Answering Point, and the fire/medical one would be a secondary answering point.
The supervisors told county staff they don’t want a second dispatch center to negatively affect the general fund, so the Fire Department would likely take on any extra costs.
Building onto the EOC would cost about $10.4 million, not counting the $954,000 plans to add a new joint information center and call center to the building, according to the county.
The EOC, at 4408 Cathedral Oaks Road, is adjacent to the county Fire Department headquarters and backup power sources.
Since it is about 1 mile away from the current dispatch center, it does not provide redundancy for any emergency that affects the South Coast. Both facilities are in Southern California Edison territory and the most expensive housing region of the county.
The supervisors rejected county staff’s recommended site near the Santa Ynez Airport for a northern location, with an estimated $12.5 million construction cost.
County dispatch centerClick to view larger
The county dispatch center, shown in 2018, operates out of the Sheriff’s Department headquarters at 4434 Calle Real but the fire and medical services may break off for a separate center. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)
County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig, Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Taylor and Santa Barbara Fire Chief Eric Nickel supported a regional fire and medical dispatch center, and asked for the EOC location since it is more “shovel ready.”
Dr. Angelo Salvucci, head of the county’s Emergency Medical Services, said he wants countywide emergency medical dispatch, which includes structured call interrogation with instructions for every caller regardless of location.
Having that, and borderless dispatch, is what’s important, he said.
“I’ll leave the way that that occurs up to all of you,” he said.
In Ventura County, he said, there is a small delay to transfer calls from one center to the other, but that has been made up by the efficiency of dispatching resources.
Sheriff Bill Brown argued for keeping the combined dispatch system, which was created in 1977, and said it’s a benefit to have one unit handling a 9-1-1 call from start to finish instead of transferring it.
“And make no mistake about it, with separation there will be delays in transferring 9-1-1 calls, in dispatching emergency responses, in initiating emergency medical dispatching, and ultimately in providing emergency aid to victims,” Brown said.
The current center is capable of doing borderless dispatch, if the county invests in computer-aided dispatch improvements, he said.
Joe Ayala, a supervisor at the dispatch center, said splitting the dispatch centers would add a step.
The law enforcement center’s call-takers would ask the initial questions – getting the address of the emergency, the caller’s contact information, and what they need – and then transfer calls that require a fire/medical response.
The call-taker at the fire/medical dispatch center would ask the same questions, and the sheriff’s dispatcher would likely stay on the line to make sure no law enforcement resources were needed, he said.
Call transfers happen now between the county’s six dispatch centers, while the cities of Santa Maria and Lompoc refer their major medical calls to the county center for the emergency medical dispatch Salvucci was describing.
Ayala said the county dispatch center handles emergency medical dispatch for “the three Cs”: childbirth, choking and CPR.
The county dispatch center does not have the staffing to provide emergency medical dispatch for all medical calls from the cities, he said.