Mutual aid is the byword among firefighters, so when former Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Eric Peterson brought up the idea of a single dispatch center for all departments countywide, the other six fire chiefs quickly agreed it would be the right way to respond to emergencies. The result, years and years in the making, said Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Chris Mailes, is the Regional Fire Communications Center, which broke official ground on Tuesday afternoon.
The new dispatch center would contain “state-of-the-art” technologies, allowing coordinated responses and enabling the agencies to “think beyond our borders,” said Mailes. The concept of dispatching the unit closest to an emergency made sense, the Board of Supervisors agreed, approving the concept in 2021. At the time, Sheriff Bill Brown — whose campus houses the current dispatch center for County Fire — argued the added time to switch to a different dispatcher would cause delays.
However, “When you call 9-1-1, the dispatcher asks if the call is for fire, police, or medical,” said the current county fire chief, Mark Hartwig, on Tuesday. Fire and medical calls would go immediately to the new regional dispatch center, once it’s completed, “and with one call, you can see where the need is, direct a crew to the position, and arrive at protocols,” he said. Five different dispatch centers currently send out calls for Summerland-Carpinteria and Montecito, City of Santa Barbara, Lompoc, Guadalupe and Santa Maria, and County Fire through the Sheriff’s Office. About 70 percent of the calls are for medical emergencies.
Being all in one place actually saves further time, said Hartwig, as the existing system requires the receiving dispatcher to manually transfer information to their own computer system. The new building would hold the county’s ambulance service — newly split among the fire agencies and contractor AMR — and would result in no loss of time as the medical first responders would be on the same property and on the same computer system.
Asphalt was already being broken up in the parking lot at the county’s Emergency Operations Center on Cathedral Oaks Road where the dispatch center is to go, so Tuesday’s ceremony took place at a pile of dirt on a tarp. An audience of about 100 firefighters — whose rigs were providing a backdrop — staff, and county officials past and present were gathered in the brilliant sunshine.
When Peterson began the effort about eight years ago, he toured the modern dispatch facility in Ventura with the county supervisors, including Janet Wolf, who was present at the ceremony. Supervisor Steve Lavagnino remembered thinking it was like seeing a new home that your spouse is very much taken with but you know you couldn’t afford: “It’s hard to believe we’re here.”
The Regional Fire Communications Center carries a $17.6 million price tag, and the new building will hold a larger Joint Information Center and Call Center, which will handle the flood of calls that come in during emergencies. The annual cost to run the dispatch center is being shared among the fire agencies; in 2020, that was estimated to be $800,000-$900,000 for the City of Santa Barbara. Hartwig said they should be up and running by May 2024.