Santa Barbara County supervisors voted on Tuesday to separate fire and medical dispatch operations from the Sheriff’s Office, capping a two-year effort by fire chiefs to run their own emergency communications center and highlighting the longstanding rift between the public safety entities. The vote also started the process of expanding the county’s existing Emergency Operations Center on Cathedral Oaks Road to accommodate the new fire/medical dispatch facility. Construction is estimated to cost $10.4 million with an annual budget of $2.5 million.
The chiefs and county Emergency Medical Director Dr. Angelo Salvucci insist, somewhat counter-intuitively, that a separation will actually increase the speed and efficiency of their services. Currently, they explained, fire and ambulance crews throughout the Santa Barbara area only respond to calls within their respective jurisdictions. The new Regional Fire Communications Facility, as it’s named, would allow for borderless “closest-resource dispatching,” thus reducing response times.
Sheriff Bill Brown argued the exact opposite on Tuesday, claiming the new system would slow reaction and endanger lives, since all 9-1-1 calls would still first go through Sheriff’s dispatchers in their Calle Real headquarters before the appropriate ones were transferred to fire/medical. Two transfers would be necessary if the call first went to the CHP, he said. “Make no mistake about it,” he said, “with separation, there will be delays.” There was good reason the county consolidated dispatch services all the way back in 1977, he said, and it’s stayed that way since. Brown also cited the extra cost of building a new facility when the county is already spending tens of millions of public safety dollars on the new jail and converting its Blackhawk helicopter to a Firehawk.
In arguing for the split in August 2018, former County Fire Chief Eric Peterson (who, perhaps not coincidentally, was just days away from announcing his retirement) publicly aired the behind-the-scenes tension between Brown and the chiefs, which came to a head a few years ago over control of the county’s Air Support Unit and again more recently during the Thomas Fire and 1/9 Debris Flow. Peterson told the supervisors that yes, in a perfect world, fire, medical, and Sheriff’s dispatch would all be under one roof. But that only works if control and oversight are shared. When dealing with Brown and the Sheriff’s Office, he explained, the idea of shared governance “has an asterisk next to it.” Supervisor Peter Adam suggested perhaps “too much testosterone” on both sides was contributing to the conflict. Former Supervisor Janet Wolf said she felt like she was “dealing with children.”
During this week’s discussion, supervisors Das Williams and Gregg Hart similarly lamented the ongoing headbutting but said their constituents ― many of whom live in prior disaster zones ― are asking for the closest-resource system. Supervisor Steve Lavagnino directed county staff to explore using Santa Maria’s new dispatch center as a backup to the Cathedral Oaks Road facility should it be overrun by a fire or other catastrophe.
The chambers were packed by firefighters in black and blue uniforms, led by current County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig, Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Eric Nickel, and Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Taylor, who all spoke measuredly in favor of the breakup. Brown sat to one side with Undersheriff Sol Linever, who occasionally shook his head in disagreement.
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