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

Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a two-part series about the Santa Monica police and fire departments’ joint dispatch center.

For years, the Santa Monica police and fire departments had separate dispatch centers. They operated independently, frequently collaborating but regularly coping with staffing shortages, information gaps and delayed responses.

The fatal shooting at Santa Monica College in 2013 was a watershed moment for the two agencies. If they hadn’t seen a pressing need for better coordination before, they certainly saw it then.

“They didn’t know what each other was doing,” said Christopher Herren, the communications administrator in the city Office of Emergency Management.

That dynamic is quickly changing. Herren is helping to oversee the merging of Santa Monica’s police and fire dispatch centers.

Earlier this year fire dispatchers joined their police counterparts in what had been the police dispatch center, which has 10 workstations and which is large enough to support both agencies under the Emergency Management umbrella.

Herren credited former City Manager Rod Gould with bringing the joint dispatch center to fruition.

“He was a big proponent of this — it may not have happened if he weren’t around,” he said. “Both departments were reluctant to give up control, and Rod basically said, ‘Let’s have you both give it up and move it under the Office of Emergency Management.'”

According to Herren, it’s not uncommon for police and fire departments in small cities or counties to have shared dispatch centers.

“We’re in an area with a lot of single agencies,” he said. “People say this isn’t done anywhere, but the reality is that, in cities our size, this is much more common.”

The primary goal was not to cut costs, Herren said, but rather to improve response efforts and, therefore, public safety.

Emergency management officials said in an October report about the joint dispatch center that the merge is “essential in addressing the changing nature of public safety in today’s complex environment. Almost all significant public safety events require cooperation and coordination between the different branches of first responders.”

The separate police and fire dispatch centers both suffered from “chronic understaffing, insufficient supervision and oversight, and poor working conditions,” according to the report.

“The combining of fire and police communications centers into a consolidated public communications center will improve situational awareness, remove needless time lags due to call transferring, create cross staffing capacity, and is an acknowledgement of the critical role of communications operators in the delivery of public safety,” officials said in the report.

Contact Jeff Goodman at 310-573-8351, jeff@www.smdp.com or on Twitter.

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