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Santa Monica Considers Overhaul of Emergency Dispatch System

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By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

August 26, 2013 -- For the first time since 2007, Santa Monica officials are considering a major overhaul of the bayside city's emergency dispatch system.

While the details of the proposed new system have yet to be worked out, City Hall has been meeting with representatives from Santa Monica's police and fire departments to discuss combining the two agencies' dispatch centers, officials said.

Officials hope that the move, which could happen as early as next year, would shave vital seconds off the time it takes dispatchers to deploy first responders after receiving an emergency phone call.

“While our response times are currently very good, the proposed consolidation would eliminate one step within the call transfer process, thereby saving precious time needed to extinguish a fire or provide life-saving care to a patient,” said Santa Monica Fire Department (SMFD) Chief Scott Ferguson.

Ferguson also said that a combined dispatch room could theoretically be easier to coordinate.

“A second benefit would arise during a period of particularly high call volume or a major incident when resources are stretched to their maximum,” he said. “As designed, the adopted model should allow for more effective communication from dispatcher to dispatcher and a level of cross-training that would allow each discipline to provide the other with support.”

But the proposed change has raised some questions.

“There are concerns,” said Michael McElvaney, paramedic coordinator for the SMFD, about the proposed consolidation.

“One of the concerns is there is a real difference in dispatching EMS (Emergency Medical Service) calls and police calls,” he said.

Under the current system, all 911 calls go to a police dispatcher who determines whether the call needs to be directed to the fire department or if it's a police emergency.

Fire or medical calls are then forwarded by the police dispatcher to the fire department dispatcher.

Having divided dispatches allows the phone operators to have specialized training tailored to the particular types of emergencies each dispatch office fields, officials said.

Officials are currently exploring the possibility of requiring dispatchers who work in the new consolidated dispatch center to have training in all the protocols required for fielding fire, medical and law enforcement emergencies.

“There's some specific training that each side will have to go through to be certified,” said Santa Monica Police Department (SMPD) Lieutenant Richard Lewis.

He added that though the dispatch system would undergo significant changes, the transition would have a minimal impact on the level of service callers receive.

The last time the City made a major change to its emergency dispatch services, however, that wasn't the case.

In 2005, SMFD's dispatch was in desperate need of equipment upgrades to keep up with increasing calls, according to a City staff report to the Council in June that year.

While combining dispatches for Santa Monica's emergency services was an option then, the City eventually decided in 2007 to sign a contract with Los Angeles' fire dispatch center to handle SMFD's calls.

However, the agreement was ended shortly after residents began complaining about the arrangement.

“The volume of calls that go through (L.A.'s dispatch) center is so huge, they are all about getting calls out,” McElvaney said. “They don't gather a lot of information. There were a lot of issues.”

One of those issues was that dispatchers didn't know Santa Monica and would sometimes confuse similar street names when giving instructions to firefighters, McElvaney said.

Since the new system would keep Santa Monica's dispatch local and small -- at any given moment there is a total of about a half-dozen dispatchers working in both centers -- it's not likely that will be a problem again.

Still, the changes could have a significant effect on how the system is managed, Lewis said.

While SMPD's dispatchers are civilians employed by the department, they are managed by sworn officers.

“Under the joint plan, you'd see a civilian manager take over,” Lewis said, which would free the uniformed officers to go back into the field.

City officials are considering moving dispatch to Santa Monica's Office of Emergency Management, giving it over entirely to civilian oversight.

That move would allow for more opportunities for advancement for dispatchers, Lewis said.

“There's not a lot of room for growth,” he said, referring to the limited channels for professional advancement for civilians within the current structure.

But would having civilian leadership in the dispatch center save money?

That's still being studied, Lewis said.

Combining the dispatch centers won't change the number of employees, Lewis said, because both fire and police departments expect to field the same number of calls.

Any savings from the restructuring would largely depend on the salaries of the new managers and discussions haven't gotten to that level of detail yet.

Officials maintain that, throughout the process, their primary concern is keeping a high level of service.

“I am confident that any of the proposed options would include appropriate training and certification, an effective staffing model, and a mechanism by which dispatchers will be able to periodically review their calls and make incremental adjustment in order to ensure the best possible customer service,” Ferguson said.

“Regardless of whether there are any eventual changes, our primary mission will always be to ensure that the Santa Monica Fire and Police 911 communication system focuses on the safe and expedient response needs of the community,” he said.

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