The Santa Monica Fire Department (SMFD) has proposed plans to join with the Los Angeles City Fire Department in development of a regional dispatch center.

Santa Monica fire chief Jim Hone presented the proposal to the Santa Monica City Council Tuesday, May 17th.

Hone said the regional dispatch center would offer SMFD more opportunities to handle an increased number of calls for fire and emergency medical service and reduce response time.

“The increasing number of calls is having a negative impact on our ability to provide effective fire department dispatch services,” Hone said.

“In our current system, a single dispatcher is responsible for all incoming and outgoing calls, monitoring three radio frequencies and dispatching appropriate resources,” he said.

The Santa Monica Fire Department currently employs four dispatchers and one dispatch supervisor.

During each 12-hour shift, only one dispatcher is on duty and the dispatch supervisor provides assistance if the department is experiencing a high volume of calls.

The department has seen a 45 percent increase in service calls in the past ten years and is currently using dispatch equipment that is 15 to 20 years old.

A regional dispatch center operated by the City of Los Angeles would feature 25 dispatchers on duty, who would dispatch resources closest to the emergency, regardless of jurisdiction.

One dispatcher would take the call and stay on the phone to provide medical advice to the caller while a second dispatcher would simultaneously dispatch emergency services.

Resources would be en route within 15 seconds of taking the call, Hone said.

He said SMFD dispatchers do not currently provide medical advice during calls.

Th Santa Monica Fire Department received $1.7 million in federal Homeland Security grant funds to cover the costs of joining the regional dispatch center.

The City of Santa Monica would need to provide additional funding to cover the costs of annual fees and new radio equipment.

Fire departments that join the regional dispatch center pay $250,000 in annual fees and can pull out of the contract at any time.

“We are not going to be divesting ourselves of infrastructure if we make this change,” said Santa Monica city manager Susan McCarthy.

“If we choose not to proceed with this in the future, the business of getting back into business in Santa Monica would not be harmed,” she said.

Homeland Security grants have been provided because the federal government wants to consolidate resources so that fire departments within a region could respond to terrorist threats more quickly.

Hone said additional grant money beyond the $1.7 million is not guaranteed.

One of the goals in Los Angeles County is to establish six regional dispatch centers for all fire departments in the county, Hone said.

The Santa Monica City Council may vote on the proposal at its meeting Tuesday, June 14th.

Councilmembers asked Hone if contracting with the City of Los Angeles Fire Department would reduce the quality of services provided by Santa Monica dispatchers.

Councilmember Ken Genser said Santa Monica residents currently receive excellent services from local dispatchers, who know all the local roads and descriptions of places in situations where callers do not know their exact location.

“Are we protected over the long term [and whether] this is going to be funded well enough to provide the level of service we need and expect?” Genser asked.

Hone said the level of service would not decrease, because a computer automatically determines the locations of emergency calls and SMFD would receive mutual aid without request.

Currently, the Santa Monica Fire Department receives mutual aid from other fire departments by a costly and time-consuming request process.

If SMFD is a member of the regional dispatch center and has to respond to a major emergency or multiple incidents in Santa Monica, the Los Angeles City Fire Department would be sent in an instant to cover Santa Monica fire stations that are understaffed.

The Santa Monica Fire Department and councilmembers have options to this proposal, such as joining other regional dispatch centers and hiring more local dispatchers.

Hone said the proposal was chosen as the best option after the Santa Monica Fire Department undertook an 18-month evaluation process.

“A fire department regional dispatch concept uses resources more effectively,” Hone said.

“This is not a new concept, it has been used for more than 20 years,” he said.

The Santa Monica Fire Department has been responding to an increased number of emergency calls in Santa Monica because the population is getting older.

Other reasons include a rise in the city’s homeless population and the fact that overcrowded emergency rooms in Los Angeles County need help from SMFD to transport patients to Santa Monica hospitals.

The Santa Monica Fire Department responds to all kinds of fires and explosions, medical emergencies, hazardous material and gas leaks, vehicle accidents, elevator entrapments and confined space rescue, structure collapses, Africanized bee threats and aircraft rescue.

“Our motto is that if people need somebody and need somebody right now, we are the ones to call,” Hone said.