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Regional fire dispatch planning underway in Santa Barbara County for several agencies

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Santa Barbara County fire agencies have been working on a consolidation dispatch plan and new facilities that could be in place by 2024.

A presentation to the Board of Supervisors shows the work has been underway through the area chiefs and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office which currently has dispatch operations.

The plan is also involving a joint dispatch for the local emergency medical services agency.

The fire dispatch services would include the County of Santa Barbara, and the fire agencies in the cities of Santa Barbara, Montecito, Carpinteria, Lompoc, Guadalupe and Santa Maria. (Cities including Goleta, Solvang and Buellton are under contract for fire services with the county.)

The plan also includes a new $11-million dispatch building on the same property as the Office of Emergency Management off Cathedral Oaks Road.

There will be some financial losses for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's department where some dispatch operations are taking place now. That is being worked out with the departments and the county executive office.

Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig said the project will improve efficiencies. "We believe it's going to have a net  overall positive effect," said Harwig. He says the ability to get a 911 call to the correct dispatch center and to start equipment moving will be increased for all agencies.

Fire chiefs and department representatives from all the agencies involved in the agreement were present at the county meeting Tuesday.

The plan also calls for operational facilities in the Santa Maria Police headquarters if a catastrophic event takes place in the South Coast that renders the main dispatch center inoperable.

Hartwig said there will be a focus on training or retraining dispatchers some who may want to move from law enforcement to fire. That separation involves knowledge of several aspects of the job including pre-arrival information and support of field crews.

Sheriff Bill Brown says he disagrees with the splitting the 911 dispatched centers. He spoke via zoom to the board about the proposal and the costs. "I ask you to reconsider" the separation. He says the current center has proven to be effective by having dispatchers in the same room, communicating face-to-face has been successful.

Brown says having the consolidated center is a cost savings to the taxpayers. Rather than creating efficiencies, the move creates costs, he says.

Each year, Brown says the agencies involved will have thousands of dollars in new operating costs to pay their share of the center. He says now is not the time to spend the money on the center or the operating costs.

He says the current dispatch center is capable of handling borderless dispatch operations.

Brown said there will be "life threatening delays when seconds count." He says when calls have to be transferred from one agency to another depending on where they are answered there will be a delayed response and that could be life threatening.

In looking at the overall use, Brown also suggested the emergency medical center dispatch be eliminated from the consolidation plan and have its own dispatchers.

He said the work of the vast majority of the dispatch center employees is "superb."

Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said he sees the project as a benefit. He does not believe the expense is a financial mistake as the Sheriff is suggesting. He said, "I'm looking around this room and there are a lot of public safety professionals in this room  that if  I believe if  they have the same belief that you do, they would not have their name  inked on this contract. "

Brown said if the plan was a successful model, he asked why aren't other agencies doing this.

In the Isla Vista 2014 mass murder scene, Brown said if the dispatchers were not in the same room and able to yell across to others instead of calling another center, an injured victim may have waited much longer in a critical situation. "There's no question in my mind that woman would not have survived," said Brown without the current system.

He listed many aspects of the plan, in his view, that were not efficient or cost effective.

"Despite our great respect for our colleagues in the fire service we strongly disagree with the notion that separate (dispatch centers) will provide a greater level of public safety service and that it will decrease response times," said Brown. 

Supervisor Joan Hartmann said she has seen some of the current aging dispatch equipment and looks forward to an upgrade.

"We have to be urgent in improving the system," said Supervisor Das Williams. "I've got seven agencies here right now ready to consolidate the system."

 Santa Barbara County Public Safety Dispatch Supervisor Susan Farley spoke during the public comment period and said the current consolidation center can handle additional agencies. She said putting all the agencies in the current building is the best option. Having a separate building will cause an "unnecessary competition for staff."

Supervisor Gregg Hart said, when someone is in need of help from the fire agency, they don't care what color engine shows up. "We're going to really have the best response to any kind of medical emergency or fire emergency or anything that needs assistance from the fire department dispatched immediately through this new process and collaboratively."

Hartwig said, " getting that right resource to the right call the first time and then getting the right service, I do think that is  really one of the foundational pieces to this center. "

For more information go to: Santa Barbara County Fire dispatch consolidation.

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John Palminteri

John Palminteri is senior reporter for KEYT NewsChannel 3. To learn more about John, click here.

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