CITY HALL When it comes to fire dispatching, it’s in with the old and out with the new.

The Santa Monica Fire Department will reactivate its Communications Center in the Public Safety Facility after concluding that a more than year-long relationship with the Los Angeles Fire Department Regional Dispatch Center just isn’t working.

“While the Santa Monica Fire Department has experienced improvement in communication systems technology … certain aspects of the Los Angeles Fire Department Dispatch System is providing less than optimal service delivery,” SMFD Chief Jim Hone said on Tuesday during a City Council meeting.

The council authorized City Manager Lamont Ewell to terminate the agreement with the LAFD and reactivate the Communications Center, which has been sitting dormant since the department switched over in January 2007.

The move back to the Communications Center, which is estimated to take about nine months, comes after the completion of a study that examined the efficiency of the Regional Dispatch Center and explored alternatives, including forming a similar partnership with the cities of Beverly Hills and Culver City and merging operations with the Santa Monica Police Department.

Conducted by GeoComm, the study ultimately recommended that reverting back to the Communications Center would best serve the needs of residents at this time.

The study was headed by two retired fire chiefs — Ken Hobbs from Lenexa Fire Department in Kansas and Barry Luke of Orange County Fire Rescue in Florida — and included interviews with local firefighters, most of whom concurred that the current partnership with the LAFD has too many issues.

“The urgency still exists at this point,” Brad Lomas, the president of Santa Monica Firefighters Local 1109, said. “This is something that needs to be addressed.”

Among the issues experienced at the Regional Dispatch Center was confusion caused by emergency calls that came from addresses in both Santa Monica and Los Angeles.

“There were occasions where the emergency call with the city of Santa Monica would result in Los Angeles Fire Department units being sent to the same address in the city of Los Angeles,” Luke said.

The center was also plagued by the problem of experiencing overwhelming call volumes, which would lead to periods of time every day when the system would be saturated, leaving 911 lines to ring longer than the department would prefer.

About 95 percent of the calls that the LAFD handles fall within their own jurisdiction, Luke said.

“Santa Monica is really more of a customer to the Los Angeles Fire Department and not really a full participant in the Los Angeles Fire Department dispatch system,” he said.

The shift back to the Communications Center is estimated to cost about $3.1 million in one-time start-up charges, with the bulk of the money going toward an upgraded radio system. The annual cost to operate the center is expected to be about $1.14 million, which covers equipment and personnel.

The current budget for dispatch services is about $630,000 and was estimated to be $650,000 in the 2009-10 budget if the department continued with the Regional Dispatch Center.

Ewell said the costs could have an impact on next year’s overall city budget.

Geocomm recommends that the center be staffed with at least two dispatchers and one supervisor. Staffing and the outdated equipment were two of the reasons why local fire officials pursued the partnership with the LAFD.

The one-time cost is helped by the current state of the communications center, which has been maintained by staff since it was shut down.

“It looks like a dispatcher went on break and never came back,” Luke said. “The console is there, the chair is there, the radio equipment is there, the 911 system is there.”

Councilmember Kevin McKeown praised fire officials for admitting that a system wasn’t working out and be willing to think about solutions.

“We’re … very lucky we have firefighters who care so much that they came to us and said, ‘you know what, it just ain’t working,’” McKeown said. “Your dedication to your job and safety of residents is very much appreciated.”

melodyh@smdp.com

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