Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Eric Nickel put forth a proposal Tuesday to move the city’s fire and medical dispatching services to a new regional dispatch center being designed and built at the county’s Cathedral Oaks campus. Doing so, Nickel said, would vastly improve the coordination and communication among Santa Barbara’s emergency services and reduce response times for city residents by as much as one to two minutes. The tradeoff would be an extra $800,000-$900,000 in additional yearly costs.
At the moment, Nickel explained to the City Council, a city 9-1-1 caller in need of an ambulance or fire crew is often transferred between multiple dispatchers and agencies. That takes precious time. And because each jurisdiction is currently limited to sending only their units, there’s no guarantee the closest EMS or fire engine will be the one to get the call.
The Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) technology at the new regional center, Nickel said, will send the closest available unit to the incident, regardless of their home agency. “The eight stations of the City Fire Department essentially become a combined team of 18 fire stations from Gaviota to Carpinteria, and 37 stations countywide,” said Nickel. Multiple county partners, from Santa Maria down to Summerland, have already signed on to the regional center, which is expected to open by 2023. Ventura uses the same system, as do many other counties throughout the state.
In the 10-year period from 2009 to 2019, the volume of city emergency calls increased by 52 percent, Nickel said. At the same time, dispatcher staffing decreased from 19 full-time positions to 18. There will come a point in the next decade when City Fire will need to add up to two more fire crews to meet the ever-increasing need, Nickel said. One fully staffed engine company costs approximately $3.5 million per year. The extra $800,000-$900,000 for the dispatch move is more than worth it, he said.