PUBLIC SAFETY FACILITY — Just a few weeks before its dispatch center goes live for the first time in nearly three years, the Santa Monica Fire Department on Wednesday welcomed the people who will be responsible for fielding the emergency calls for the city.
The first class for the reactivated center includes a communications supervisor and seven communications operators, coming with a diversity of experiences working in dispatching, some for private security companies, others for public entities, including the SMFD.
“I’m really excited that they will not only provide our community with a high level of service but for the safety of our firefighters as well,” Fire Chief Jim Hone said.
The dispatch center is expected to come online sometime during the first two weeks of December.
Challenged by a staffing shortage and outdated technological equipment, the center closed in early 2007 when the SMFD decided to merge dispatch operations with the Los Angeles Fire Department Regional Dispatch System to improve efficiency.
The change, however, led to problems, including confusion caused by emergency calls that came from addresses that existed both in Santa Monica and Los Angeles. After nearly two years, the City Council in January decided to reactivate the old communications center in the Public Safety Facility, agreeing to address the issue that led to its deactivation in the first place, including staffing and equipment.
Rejoining the SMFD are two former employees, including new supervisor Shannon Cornman, who was first hired in 2004 as an on-call dispatcher, serving until operations were transferred to LAFD, after which she became a police dispatcher with SMPD.
Also returning is Janine Pruett, who was a dispatcher with the center before it closed in 2007. Pruett has also worked for the L.A. County Fire Department where she processed more than 100 calls a day.
The operators underwent four months of immersion-style training, which included learning the geography, its landmark buildings, streets and locations, by touring the area. They also simulated calls, alternating as communication operators and field units on the radios.
“I am just amazed with the level of commitment they have to learn all the new technologies that are available and necessary to provide the highest level of service to our community,” Hone said. “They epitomize the phrase multitask because that is in fact what they do and the training they received is more extensive than any of our communication operators ever received in the past.”
The operators include Anna King, a 22-year-old recent graduate of Pepperdine University where she received her bachelor’s degree in public relations with an emphasis on emergency communications. She also comes from a family of fire personnel.
King said she has a desire to help people in their time of need, to be the calm and collected voice that guides them through.
“A lot of people don’t realize that for the people calling in, it’s probably one of the worst days of their life,” she said. “It makes you feel good to know you’re helping them during that time.”
King said that one of the most valuables parts of training was spending time in the city, learning the neighborhoods, the parks and major landmarks.
The communications center will be staffed by two operators around-the-clock and one supervisor during the day. There are three stations set up in the small center, each equipped with seven monitors that display everything from the call screen to a map showing where the report is originating.
Emergency communications in the city were originally handled by the local phone company, which either transferred the call through an old plug in the switchboard or directly called the public safety agencies with the incident information.
The first official communications center in the city was set up in the old SMFD headquarters at the corner of Fourth Street and Santa Monica Boulevard, staffed by an on-duty firefighter. The headquarters moved to the back half of City Hall when it was built in 1939. A room on the second floor of City Hall had an emergency phone and radio communications system that had only one frequency shared with the SMPD.
A new headquarters opened at 1444 Seventh St. in 1955, housing a state-of-the-art dispatching center with a multi-channel alert system, serving also as the terminus for the fire call boxes that were located at almost every intersection in the city.
It was also the first time that civilian dispatchers were hired on a 24-hour basis.
The center was in use until the Public Safety Facility opened in 2003, housing a communication center that had two new consoles but staffed by only one person.
“Reopening the fire Communications Center will allow the Santa Monica Fire Department to take advantage of significant technological advances, including an updated computer-aided dispatch system, an automatic vehicle location system and rapid availability of digital geographic information services,” Fire Captain John Nevandro said.