The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously voted to move forward with developing a Regional Fire Communications Facility that will allow for borderless fire and emergency medical services dispatch countywide.

The county’s Public Safety Dispatch Center has 9-1-1 dispatchers for the Sheriff’s Department, the County Fire Department and American Medical Response in one big room now, at the Sheriff’s Department headquarters at 4434 Calle Real near Goleta. There are other dispatch centers for city police departments, other fire agencies and the California Highway Patrol

Fire agencies within Santa Barbara County, with the exception of Vandenberg Space Force Base, will consolidate fire and emergency medical services dispatch into this new center, separate from the current Sheriff’s Department dispatch center.

The facility would allow the closest assets to respond to emergencies first, despite jurisdictional boundaries, according to Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig.

Hartwig said the facility is going to have a “net overall positive effect” on response times because consolidating all of the fire agencies and emergency medical services into one center will ensure that the call goes to the right agency the first time.

“We are not cutting edge, we are not bleeding edge, on this concept,” Hartwig said. “My own experience is that large, progressive, professional departments have said, ‘Am I better serving my community by staying with my law partner, as good as that might be, or am I better joining my fire partners?’”

He said the consolidated fire and medical dispatch model is used by Ventura County, Kern County, and regions of Los Angeles and San Diego counties.

All of the county’s fire chiefs, with the exception of Guadalupe Fire Chief Michael Cash, who couldn’t attend the meeting, were present during Tuesday’s presentation to show support for the Regional Fire Communications Facility.

Sheriff Bill Brown opposes the plan to separate fire and medical dispatch from the current dispatch center, and argued that the national trend is to consolidate dispatch centers.

“I want to preface my remarks with the fact that I hold our brothers and sisters in the fire service in the highest regard,” Brown said. “But sometimes friends and colleagues disagree, and this is one of those times.”

Brown said the current dispatch center has a “proven history” during the past four years as it has handled responses to wildfires, the Montecito debris flow and the Isla Vista mass shooting.

“History has proven that there is no need for separate dispatch services given the extraordinary skills, talents and track record of our current dispatch staff,” he said.

Brown said that in the past, he was open to a shared governance model for the dispatch center and that the center could transition to borderless dispatching with technology and training upgrades, but supervisors pointed out that those things have not been implemented over the years they have been discussed. 

The Board of Supervisors unanimously voted Tuesday to authorize cooperative dispatch partnership agreements between the Montecito and Carpinteria-Summerland Fire Protection District boards, the Santa Barbara Fire Department and the Santa Maria Fire Department.

On Nov. 2, the Lompoc City Council approved the inclusion of the Lompoc Fire Department to the Regional Fire Communications Facility and directed its staff to return with long-term funding plans, according to the staff report. It is anticipated that an agreement will be in place within 30 days.

The board also approved having the Regional Fire Communications Facility be the point of dispatch for ambulance providers once the facility opens, and directed staff to focus on planning the development of a backup public safety answering point in Santa Maria.

The current Sheriff’s Department dispatch center will remain the primary public safety answering point for 9-1-1 calls. 

Supervisors have been discussing the possible separation of county law enforcement and fire/medical dispatch since at least 2018

In 2019, the Board of Supervisors chose the Emergency Operations Center property at 4408 Cathedral Oaks Road as the site for this new Regional Fire Communications Facility. It is adjacent to the County Fire headquarters. 

The estimated construction cost of the facility is $11 million, and the County Fire Department budgeted $1.7 million this year for the architecture and design of the facility, according to the county staff report. The total operation cost of the facility would be about $4.9 million a year, which would be split among the participating agencies, according to the county. 

Hartwig said County Fire pays about $2.1 million annually toward the current dispatch center, and its share of the new center would be about $1.1 million a year.

In his arguments against the regional fire dispatch center, Brown said he believes it would negatively affect county department budgets.

“Rather than create efficiencies, the move duplicates services and it increases costs unnecessarily,” he said. 

Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said he did not appreciate that Brown’s “No. 1 concern” was financial, and said that it’s the supervisors’ job to answer for the county budget and how to handle taxpayer dollars.

“Talking about the … significant costs, we’re going to run into these. If we didn’t take (those) into consideration, and still have to make those tough decisions, we would have never built the North County Jail,” Lavagnino said. “That’s $100 million. We just decided to spend another $24 million rehabbing a very small portion of the South County Jail.

“So when we talk about the financial impact here, I mean, I want to take that completely off the table.”

Second District Supervisor Gregg Hart also chimed in, saying that it’s “too often the case” that the Board of Supervisors hears from Brown about cost savings that are available when things are threatening his budget, but later in the day will hear reports about how the Sheriff’s Department is continuously over budget because of overtime hours.

“There have been opportunities to do things differently, to collaborate, and those opportunities weren’t taken by the Sheriff’s Department, and they were taken by the fire agencies,” Hart said.

Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.