In an embarrassing incident on Presidents Day, February 15, for both the California Highway Patrol and the Montecito Fire Protection District, a Montecito Fire battalion chief was handcuffed and detained by a CHP officer during response to a minor injury accident on northbound 101 near Sheffield Drive.
The battalion chief had reportedly refused to move a fire truck that was blocking the fast lane — which, as is standard operating procedure, was being used to shield responding crews from traffic — after being asked by the CHP officer to do so because of traffic build-up. While CHP Captain Jeff Sgobba said an internal investigation is being conducted, he admitted that the incident was a stain on the record of cooperation between the two agencies.
As explained by Geri Ventura, media spokesperson for Montecito Fire, the CHP has ranking jurisdiction over all freeway incidents, and a responding CHP officer is always the lead incident commander. While normally communication between CHP and other responding agencies is smooth — a prime example being the joint effort established during the Jesusita Fire — this particular incident lacked that mutual accord.
After the CHP arrived on the scene at around 3:00 p.m. (smack dab in the middle of holiday traffic), the Montecito battalion chief and fire crews showed up, parking a rig at a 45-degree angle across the fast lane to protect initial responders from commuters. The slow lane was still open, but traffic had purportedly backed up for a few miles. According to Ventura, the CHP officer’s demand to move the truck, and his subsequent decision to cuff the chief when he refused, was noticeably abrupt. “There was very little communication,” said Ventura. “Things happened very quickly,” concurred Sgobba.
The chief was not detained for long, however, because as soon as a CHP supervisor caught wind of the incident, he rushed to the scene and released the Montecito fire representative. Chief Kevin Wallace of Montecito Fire had attempted to respond to the initial call, but became bogged down in traffic and wasn’t able to make it to the accident scene in his personal vehicle.
While Ventura asserted no charges have been filed on behalf of Montecito Fire, she explained an internal investigation was being conducted by her agency and the CHP, which Sgobba confirmed. “This was just a colossal failure to communicate,” said Sgobba, “and what we really need to do is move forward.” The CHP captain emphasized that, while the incident was undeniably regrettable, it will be used help both departments to constructively re-examine how multiple agencies coordinate when responding to the same incident. Sgobba stated that increased cross-training will be an important step, and that this reevaluation was needed anyway. “We’ll take a look at [standard operating procedure] to see if things need to be changed.”
When asked for the identity of the CHP officer involved in episode, Sgobba deferred, saying, “His name is irrelevant. It could have been anybody, as each officer is a representation of the department,” he said. “We’re going to keep this all internal.” Sgobba did confirm in previous interviews that the CHP officer had transferred from Bakersfield about a month ago.
Sgobba, evidencing his desire to maintain a healthy working relationship with Montecito Fire, was slightly hesitant to speak to The Independent without Wallace present, as all statements previously given by the departments had been joint. “We don’t want this single incident to tarnish our reputation with area fire agencies,” he said.
“We have a saying here,” said Sgobba, “‘You’re only good as your last step,’ meaning each CHP officer, who represents the department as a whole, is only as good as [his or her] last stop, last interaction, last decision. In this case,” Sgobba continued, “the last step was a blemish on our positive record of working with [Montecito Fire]. It’s unfortunate, but we need to move forward.”