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County, agencies explore emergency dispatch consolidation


REGION — Five fire agencies are considering a plan that would place their separate emergency dispatch centers under one roof.

The County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a request by Supervisors Dianne Jacob and Bill Horn to empower county Chief Administrative Officer Helen Robbins-Meyer to participate in the planning stages of a common dispatch center. It would consolidate the five centers currently sprawled throughout the county, operated by the County Fire Authority/ Cal Fire, San Diego Fire & Rescue, Heartland Fire, Escondido Fire and the North County Dispatch Joint Powers Authority, known as North Comm.

Under the plan, the dispatch agencies would remain independent, but housed under one roof. Fire officials said this would streamline cooperation between the agencies, especially during emergencies and natural disasters that cross jurisdictional boundaries.

“The bottom line is it could mean faster response times to those emergencies,” Jacob said.

The discussions of consolidating dispatch centers is an offshoot of the county’s previous efforts to consolidate many of its independent fire agencies into one countywide fire authority after devastating wildfires in 2003 and 2007 underscored the need for more centralized emergency response, officials said.

Officials have discussed consolidating the centers since 2010, but talks gained steam this year as three of the five agencies — San Diego Fire, North Comm and Heartland — have outgrown their current dispatch centers. The proposed dispatch center would accommodate future dispatching needs 20 to 50 years into the future.

Stewart Gary is a consultant with CityGate Associates who recently prepared a study assessing San Diego Fire’s dispatch needs as well as those across the region. He attributed the agencies’ outgrowth of their current buildings to a rapid increase in the number of emergency medical services calls they receive each year.

“Three of the five centers have physically outgrown their space,” Gary said. “A high tide, a tsunami of EMS workload has forced people to add more dispatchers and … they are just physically out of room to put more consoles in some of the older buildings.”

The board’s vote will allow the county to cooperate with the other agencies to prepare what is known as a space and needs assessment, which would generate a rough size for the proposed facility, and a cost-sharing study that would estimate how much each agency would have to contribute to the project.

Officials said at the May 8 meeting that the facility alone — not including furnishing and technology costs — could be upwards of $30 to $38 million.

County Deputy Fire Chief Dave Nissen said that he expects by this summer to know which of the five agencies would participate. Gary anticipates that the space and needs assessment and cost sharing agreements would take anywhere from nine months to a year to complete.

The merging of dispatch agencies is not being discussed, due to significant differences in pay and benefits, Gary said.

“Physically co-locating gives them 99 percent of what they want,” Gary said. “You’re working together, you get to know each other, you trust each other. You start to get some crossover.”