Fire Chief Pushes for Dispatch Changes

County to Explore Separating Fire from Law Enforcement

Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Eric Peterson (foreground), with Sheriff Bill Brown second from the left
Photo Credit: Paul Wellman
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In what Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Eric Peterson described as “likely the most significant improvement in public safety in our county in decades,” the Board of Supervisors moved on Tuesday to explore separating dispatch operations for fire/EMS and law enforcement. Currently, fire/EMS (emergency medical services) and the Sheriff’s Office function under one dispatch center. However, contended Peterson, who is set to retire in October, that long-established system is hindering fire/EMS from making much-needed improvements.

Under the current system, for example, fire departments countywide only respond to calls within their jurisdictions. A civilian could be having a heart attack with a fire truck around the corner, but if that truck is not part of that jurisdiction, it won’t get the call. “I don’t even think our constituents know that they aren’t getting nearest-resource dispatching right now,” said Supervisor Steve Lavagnino at Tuesday’s meeting. In another less-than-ideal situation, a 9-1-1 caller may not receive emergency medical dispatcher (EMD) instructions to guide them in administering pre-arrival care, such as CPR, because not all jurisdictions have EMD-trained staff.

The system’s shortcomings are not reflective of the county’s dispatch team, which was praised highly by all sides. The problem, critics said, is that all dispatch functions operate from under one roof, when calls for law enforcement and fire/EMS require very different areas of expertise, Peterson said.

An EMS representative said the all-under-one-roof system makes dispatch unnecessarily complex and can sometimes hinder the highest-quality response. According to County Emergency Medical Director Dr. Angelo Salvucci, Santa Barbara County provides EMD instruction for just slightly more than half of 9-1-1 calls; Peterson is striving to deliver EMD 100 percent of the time, a feat not possible under the current system, he said.

In addition, Peterson is adamant about delivering closest-resource dispatching countywide. “Every fire chief in the county agrees there should be ‘borderless’ response,” he said. To facilitate this, fire department leaders have expressed their desire to consolidate under what’s called a joint powers agreement (JPA). The JPA would also allow for real-time electronic communication, something not currently in place among the seven dispatch centers in Santa Barbara County.

The topic of effective communication has become increasingly pertinent as the county has recently experienced several large-scale emergencies and disasters. “Emergencies demand a unified and well-informed response,” said Peterson, calling for consolidation under a JPA.

Not everyone was on board. Supervisor Janet Wolf voted against analyzing the option of separate dispatch centers. Sheriff Bill Brown also spoke against it, saying the current dispatch system works “brilliantly.” Brown and Wolf see value in the multidisciplinary system, which Brown said has “proved to be effective.” Under the same roof, “it’s easier to dispatch, to coordinate response,” he said.

Sheriff’s Deputy Neil Gowing was also against the split. “To separate call takers would be a critical mistake,” he said. Gowing added that a number of medical calls sometimes require deputies to respond first. He believes separating the two departments could lengthen response time.

Dr. Salvucci assured that this has not been the case in Ventura County, where he has also been EMS director and where fire/EMS run separately from law enforcement dispatch. “We provide a faster response to save more lives,” said Salvucci. In the Ventura system, as would be the case in Santa Barbara County, all 9-1-1 calls are picked up by law enforcement dispatch. They then determine whether the call should be redirected to fire/EMS. Still, “they will stay online until it is clear to them law enforcement is not needed,” said Salvucci. “[Our system] works well and has a long history. Everyone believes it works well.”

In exploring the option to separate the facilities, the Board of Supervisors will also consider which of the two ​— ​Sheriff’s Office or fire/EMS ​— ​would have to relocate to Santa Maria’s new dispatch center, a state-of-the-art facility.

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