A Santa Monica Police Department squad car leaves the Public Safety Facility on Tuesday. (Daniel Archuleta daniela@www.smdp.com)

CITYWIDE — Public safety officials are working on a plan that could combine the police and fire departments’ dispatch centers in an effort to further reduce the time it takes to respond to emergencies.

Officials say they are still talking in “very general terms” and the earliest the proposed consolidation could come would be the middle to end of next year, said Santa Monica Fire Chief Scott Ferguson.

“We haven’t seen a firm plan that’s been outlined,” Ferguson said. “While the final model has yet to be decided upon, our intent is to reduce public safety response times and enhance our fire and police departments’ training and deployment efficiency by combining personnel, equipment, and technology.”

Currently, the dispatch centers are all in-house and separate.

It wasn’t long ago when the Santa Monica Fire Department 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. Residents complained of slower response times.

After nearly two years, the City Council in 2009 decided to reactivate the old communications center in the Public Safety Facility.

In the current system, Ferguson said if a person calls 911, a police dispatcher will answer to determine the nature of the emergency.

“If the need is determined to be law enforcement related, the call is then transferred to a police dispatcher,” Ferguson said.

However, he said if it turns out to be a fire or medical emergency, the call would be transferred to a fire department call taker who would begin taking the information while simultaneously forwarding the address to a dispatcher who would then deploy the necessary resources.

Lt. Richard Lewis with the Santa Monica Police Department said the proposed configuration would take that one step away.

“We’d have faster dispatch and faster response and it’d be a better service to the citizens overall,” Lewis said.

Ferguson said another benefit of consolidation would arise during a period of particularly high call volume or a major incident when resources are stretched to their maximum. The adopted model would allow for more effective communication from dispatcher to dispatcher and a level of cross-training that would permit each department to provide the other support, Ferguson said.

The biggest concern for some is there is a specialty to dispatching fire and police units and combining the two is asking an “awful lot of one dispatcher,” said Michael McElvaney, paramedics co-ordinator for SMFD. That’s not to say police and fire dispatchers couldn’t be in the same dispatch center, but McElvaney said fire dispatchers have really specific responsibilities to the fire service.

“On the fire side, there are all sorts of EMS protocols they follow, like following a script of medical emergencies,” McElvaney said. “It’s really specialized training and [they] have to get certified as an (Emergency Medical Technician) dispatcher. It really helps to have an experienced, trained fire dispatcher.”

There are 12 to 15 part-time and full-time fire dispatchers and one supervisor, McElvaney said.

In the police department, dispatchers are civilians except for two sergeants and one lieutenant, Lewis said. By consolidating, those officers could take on other duties, potentially putting more eyes on the street to crack down on crime.

Ferguson said there is a lot to be determined related to training the dispatchers. He said dispatchers, regardless of what role they fill, have common qualities.

“They have to think quickly on their feet and process information … diction has to be good, all those things are critical,” Ferguson said.

If someone is a fire dispatcher, Ferguson said he or she would have to be cross-trained, and vice versa.

“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,” Ferguson said.



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