San Diego considers merging 911 dispatch centers
The move could save money, boost response times and improve coordination during wildfires
By David Garrick
The San Diego Union-Tribune
SAN DIEGO — San Diego may merge its 911 call center with others across the region.
The move could save money, boost response times and improve coordination during wildfires.
City officials plan to make a formal proposal by the end of the year including a location, estimated costs and how the project would be funded.
San Diego will explore merging its 911 fire and medical dispatch center with other emergency call centers in the region to save money, boost response times and improve coordination during wildfires and other major events.
City officials said Wednesday they plan to discuss the idea with other firefighting agencies and make a formal proposal by the end of the year including a location, estimated costs and how the project would be funded.
If differences in employee pay, health insurance and pensions make a formal merger impossible, city officials said multiple call centers could still operate at one site and accomplish many goals that a merger would aim to achieve.
San Diego runs the county’s highest volume emergency call center in Kearny Mesa, where city dispatchers handle 911 calls from San Diego, Chula Vista, National City, Poway, Coronado and Imperial Beach.
Officials will search for a new location where they could merge that center with similar ones run by North County Dispatch in Rancho Santa Fe, Heartland Communications in El Cajon and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in the unincorporated county.
“The ability to have that direct contact with your partners in one facility is a huge benefit,” Kevin Ester, interim chief of San Diego’s Fire-Rescue Department, told a City Council committee on Wednesday.
Ester said that kind of synergy would be particularly crucial during wildfires and other big emergencies.
“The communication feed between agencies gets very strained during those times because they’re handling hundreds if not thousands of calls,” he said.
A merged center would also save money by allowing agencies to share in the unusually high costs such facilities face for technology infrastructure and security precautions required since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.
Such mergers have been discussed before, but the need is more imminent now that San Diego has grown out of its two-story, 11,563-square-foot facility in Kearny Mesa, Ester said.
A consultant hired by the city last year to study the issue said San Diego will need to find or build a new dispatch center by 2020 even if it doesn’t merge its operation with other firefighting agencies.
The consultant, Citygate Associates of Folsom, said in its 77-page report that a merger or shared location would make much more sense financially and operationally.
Councilman Chris Cate of Mira Mesa, whose council district includes the call center, said on Wednesday it was “bursting at the seams” during his recent visit.
The number of calls handled by the center each year has risen from 130,000 in 2008 to more than 200,000 last year, requiring an increase in staff up to 70 full-time employees.
Constructed in 1990, the building also doesn’t meet federal security requirements for call centers and can’t be expanded because it’s adjacent to major surface streets and state Route 163.
City officials said the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which jointly runs its call center with the San Diego County Fire Authority, has agreed to discuss a possible merger or shared location with the city.
Heartland and North County Dispatch, often called “North Comm,” recently explored merging themselves but eventually decided against it.
Hurdles to such mergers can be high, Citygate concluded.
For example, the average salary of dispatchers in San Diego is $71,200, about 19 percent less than the average salary of $85,200 at North Comm.
But pay for San Diego dispatchers is on the rise. The City Council last fall approved 24.1 percent pay raises over the next two years to boost recruiting and retention.
The raises are part of a package deal that reduces mandatory overtime shifts and commits the city to a sharp increase in staffing that will eventually boost the number of fire dispatchers working at all times by 50 percent.
But there are problems beyond pay.
Employees have different health insurance coverage and pensions. San Diego firefighters hired since July 2012 receive a 401(k)-style retirement plan instead of a pension, a major hurdle to a formal merger involving San Diego.
In addition, different agencies use different software and equipment and have different procedures and protocols.
Ester said despite those challenges, he was optimistic that a shared location could work.
“It’s all doable,” he said.
Citygate said the agencies have already established their ability to cooperate with some joint training exercises in recent years and the occasional loaning of employees when a call center has faced a personnel crisis.
The city plans to search for sites in either Kearny Mesa or Rancho Bernardo where they would either move into a building of at least 20,000 square feet or construct such a facility, officials said.
If a new facility is built, one or more of the other firefighting agencies could either pay a portion of the construction costs or pay the city rent based on what percentage of the building they use.
A merger or a new city call center could also help improve the city’s emergency response times.
The national standard for how long it takes to answer a call is 15 seconds, 95 percent of the time. San Diego dispatchers were at 92 percent in 2016 and 94.55 percent last year, even though call volume was up by 9 percent.
Copyright 2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune