Fire Chiefs Unite to Create Their Own Dispatch Center

Claim They Can Be Faster, More Efficient by Splitting from Sheriff

Sheriff Bill Brown (left) and County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig | Credit: Courtesy

After a marriage lasting 44 years now, the seven fire chiefs of Santa Barbara County have effectively finalized their divorce decree from the Santa Barbara County Sheriffs’ unified dispatch center, arguing they can provide faster, more efficient dispatch services by working as one team. By a vote of 5-0 this Tuesday, the Santa Barbara County Supervisors agreed.

Tuesday’s proceedings were dramatic. Sheriff Bill Brown vehemently opposed the creation of the new Regional Fire Dispatch Center, insisting the current system worked exceptionally well and that it would cost the fire agencies $11 million to build the new center and $5 million a year to operate it. Worse, he said, it would also delay dispatch times by at least 58 seconds.

Relations between the five county supervisors and the sheriff, who is about to run for his fifth term, are as rocky as they’ve ever been. North County Supervisor Steve Lavagnino took offense that Brown argued against the cost of a new dispatch center when the supervisors had already invested $100 million in Brown’s new North County jail and committed another $25 million to fix up the existing South County jail. Lavagnino noted that despite some opposition, the supervisors approved it anyway because it was necessary.

Supervisor Gregg Hart said ​— ​with bitter irony ​— ​that Brown’s deputies had already gone $1.2 million over budget for overtime costs this year. Supervisors Bob Nelson and Das Williams both noted the fire chiefs had expressed concerns about the current dispatch center four years ago but Brown had failed to address the issues. Now, Williams said, seven fire chiefs were sitting in the supervisors’ chambers Tuesday who had all agreed to assume the pro rata share of the additional costs required for the new center. And, Supervisor Hart added, all but one of the city councils overseeing these fire agencies had voted in favor of the change. 

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The new center would operate something called “borderless” dispatch. That means there would only be one fire and ambulance dispatch center that will track the whereabouts of every single ambulance and fire engine in the county, except for Vandenberg Space Force Base’s fire service. When calls for service come in ​— ​about 70 percent being medical in nature and about 40 percent of those being serious to severe, the closest engine and ambulance would be dispatched to the scene, regardless of the agency. 

Under the current system, many ​— ​but not all ​— ​calls for service go to the Sheriff’s joint dispatch center. Some go to the CHP instead, and some go to the one of the other five dispatch centers currently run by various law enforcement agencies. Countywide, there are now six such dispatch centers. Not all calls get sent to the right dispatch center. And sometimes, the “right” agency doesn’t have the closest engine. Sometimes, multiple engines are dispatched to a simple medical call ​— ​as well as an ambulance and a law enforcement vehicle ​— ​when only one would suffice. 

On occasion, this can end badly. Two weeks ago, a woman in her nineties reportedly suffered a heart attack at a popular restaurant on Coast Village Road; multiple calls were required before the right responding agency was notified, and it didn’t help that the reporting party misidentified the location and had language issues. In this case, the woman reportedly died. The circumstances of her death, reportedly, are being investigated.

Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Taylor called the new program “a force multiplier.” Chris Mailes, fire chief for the City of Santa Barbara, agreed, saying the new borderless approach would transform Santa Barbara from a department with eight fire houses to one with 11. Although the new borderless approach will require an automatic handoff from the Sheriff’s existing dispatch system to the new Regional Fire Dispatch Center, Mailes and Taylor both stated there will be a net amount of time saved. Though Sheriff Brown adamantly disputed this, Mailes estimated it could save as much as two minutes and 30 seconds. Brown knew going into the meeting what the outcome would be. He was proven correct. The new center is expected to take 30 months of construction before it’s operational. For the City of Santa Barbara, the price tag will be $756,00 a year. By contrast, Fire Chief Mailes said, the price tag for a new fire station is about $3.5 million. “What we’re doing here,” Mailes added, “is going to a 37-station fire department.”

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