With staffing levels in Lompoc’s emergency dispatch center dipping to a critical level, the City Council agreed to explore contracting with an outside agency to provide the services.
Police Chief Pat Walsh and Fire Chief Gerald Kuras suggested the move, amid struggles to fill the eight full-time dispatcher slots plus a supervisor position along with 2,040 hours of part-time services.
“We’re one injury or somebody getting hired somewhere else away from having to do this as an emergency, so I think it looks sense to look at options,” Walsh said.
Staffing shortages at the city dispatch center have meant pulling two police officers from the streets to fill dispatcher duties since the agency has just three full-time dispatchers. A jailer also has been tasked to help out.
Everyone serving as dispatchers wind up working longer-than-normal hours.
“They have done a remarkable job but they are very weary,” Capt. Joseph Mariani said.
The resignation of a dispatch supervisor left the slot vacant since January, meaning that role has fallen on police managers.
Dispatchers who operate inside a crammed office at the Lompoc Police Department handle police, fire and medical calls serving as the link between residents in need and the personnel responding to calls.
“They are the true first responders,” Sgt. Kevin Martin said of dispatchers.
Empty positions have required adjusting the schedule to have just one dispatcher on the job from midnight to noon, instead the preferred two dispatchers per shift.
Costs of current dispatch services add up to more than $1 million annually. Preliminary numbers from Santa Barbara County call for a price tag of $953,757 for the first year and $988,220 for the second and third years.
Numbers from Santa Maria police had not been received as of Tuesday.
The fire chief said this could serve as the first step toward regionalization, which would involve dispatching the closest fire crew to respond to a call, regardless of jurisdiction. For instance, a Miguelito Canyon medical emergency could be handled by a Lompoc fire crew, instead of a county fire personned stationed north of the city limits.
He estimated the cost per emergency call could drop by half through regionalization of services, citing a Ventura County example.
“It comes with added benefits and added safety,” Kuras said of regionalization.
Two recent master plan documents for the Lompoc Fire Department recommended exploring outside dispatch services, he added.
There are several combined dispatch centers in the county, and Lompoc would not be alone in contracting for dispatch services.
Since the 1990s, Guadalupe contracted with the county Sheriff’s Office to handle dispatch duties and recently approved a switch to Santa Maria Police Department.
With the move into the new police station on West Betteravia Road, Santa Maria has boasted of having a state-of-the-art dispatch center able to serve multiple communities.
“Keep in mind they have the Cadillac version up there,” Walsh told the council. “They have probably the most sophisticated dispatch center I’d say on the West Coast. It’s going to be expensive from them.”
Choosing Santa Maria would require buying radios used by police officers and firefighters, Walsh said, since the existing 20-year-old equipment needs to be replaced at some point.
The fate of existing dispatchers remains uncertain. Any current dispatcher would have to meet the hiring requirements of the county or Santa Maria agencies, but Mariani had no doubts.
“It would be in the best interest to take our folks,” Mariani said. “They’re experienced. They’re outstanding dispatchers.”
Lompoc’s decision to reevaluate its dispatch center comes as Santa Barbara County considers separating its fire and sheriff dispatch.
Currently, the dispatch center at the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department headquarters at 4434 Calle Real dispatches calls for fire, medical and law enforcement personnel for unincorporated areas and contract cities.