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Centralized dispatch center could mean faster 9-1-1 response for firefighters in Santa Barbara County

A new dispatch center now under construction will centralize dispatching for the seven fire departments in Santa Barbara County.
Lance Orozco
A new dispatch center now under construction will centralize dispatching for the seven fire departments in Santa Barbara County.

Work officially underway on center which will combine fire dispatching duties now at five sites in Santa Barbara County into one centralized facility.

When you call 9-1-1 for help, you’d think that the closest fire truck would be heading your way, right? That’s not necessarily the case right now in Santa Barbara County.

Chris Mailes in Santa Barbara Fire Chief.

"I've been involved in EMS, and fire now for about 38 years, and I've watched these multiple dispatch centers, and I've watched centers hand off calls to other centers," said Mailes.

"I've watched 911 calls being transferred to multiple centers....and watch responders who aren't the closest to incidents because they (dispatchers) are simply using a static map," added Mailes.

The county’s seven fire departments all have specific areas of responsibility. It’s their home turf, so to speak.

"We're very jurisdictional...and we're very territorial," said Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig. "That makes sense to us, because we have a duty to people within our jurisdiction."

But, he says that jurisdictions don't have simple, straight lines between them. Sometimes, a neighboring jurisdiction might have a fire station which is closer to an emergency call.

The chief said they’ve come up with a better approach: Bringing all of the fire and ambulance dispatch services under a single roof.

There are currently five different dispatch centers in Santa Barbara County responsible for sending out fire trucks, and ambulances. The agencies have teamed up for a new approach, which will be a Regional Fire Communications Facility.

The project includes the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, the Santa Barbara City Fire Department, the Carpinteria-Summerland Fire Protection District, the Montecito Fire Protection District, the Lompoc Fire Department, the Guadalupe Fire Department, and the Santa Maria Fire Department:

Santa Barbara County Supervisor Das Williams says it’s a logical approach to improving the quality of emergency services.

"It's huge. A lot of people think we have an integrated system, but we don't," said Williams. He thinks this will be a game-changer.

Captain Scott Safechuck is the Santa Barbara County Fire Department’s Public Information Officer.

"To see this come to fruition for the community is really an improvement," said Safechuck.

It’s an idea that’s been talked about for years. Santa Barbara County Supervisors approved the concept more than five years ago. Retired Santa Barbara County Supervisor Janet Wolf was a major advocate.

"When you have the professional fire staff telling you the inner workings of when you have a 911 just made a lot of sense," said Wolf.

But, getting to this point took years. The agencies had to work out all of the logistical and financial issues involved with a joint communications center.

It’s being built next to Santa Barbara County’s Emergency Operations Center, off of Cathedral Oaks Road in Santa Barbara. The effort includes expanding the EOC. It’s been a critical command facility during emergencies like the Thomas and Alisal wildfires, and the Montecito debris flow.

The total price tag is estimated at $17. 6 million. Santa Barbara County General Services Director Kirk Lagerquist said the target for having the center operational is the middle of next year.

Santa Barbara Fire Chief Chris Mailes said he thinks the end result of this effort will be faster, and possibly even sometimes life-saving response times. He said it's GPS-based.

"It's simply based on one thing: Where's my closest unit," said Mailes.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.