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Santa Monica Emergency Response Improves, Officials Say
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By Jonathan Friedman
Associate Editor

June 17, 2016 -- A consolidated dispatch system begun last year has improved emergency response in Santa Monica, Communications Administrator Chris Herren told the City Council on Tuesday.

With the combining of fire/medical and police dispatch services along with the filling of job vacancies that followed the change, the number of emergency calls answered within 10 seconds has increased from 80.9 percent in 2015 to 89.5 percent this year through May, Herren said.

The number of calls answered within 15 seconds has improved from 88.5 percent to 94.7 percent, he said.

“Over the years, both [dispatch] centers suffered from understaffing, and because of the separation there were instances where there was delayed cross communications because the dispatchers weren’t even in the same room,” Herren said.

He added, “We would expect [the efficiency] to continue to improve as we have additional staff not only hired, but fully trained.”

Herren said “delay in information sharing” had been a critique of the previous system.

This had been particularly evident, he said, when a police officer was shot in 2010 and during the mass shooting that ended at Santa Monica College (“Name Released of Cop Shooting Suspect,” May 20, 2010 and “Fifth Victim Dead in Santa Monica Shooting Spree,” June 10, 2013).

“As a consolidated center, we see daily coordination between the dispatchers that are dispatching for the police and fire departments,” Herren said.

He continued, “Because they’re in the same room, they are able to immediately exchange information and communicate that out to the police and fire departments, which results in better situational awareness for all involved.”

The number of emergency calls in Santa Monica has increased each year since at least 2011, according to the City’s statistics. This includes a 54.8 percent increase from 2011 (47,949 calls) to 2015 (74,241 calls).

Herren said the increase can mostly be attributed to the “proliferation of mobile devices,” with two-thirds of emergency calls being made with cell phones.

“It’s not uncommon for us to receive dozens of 9-1-1 calls when something happens out in public, whether that’s a traffic collision or a fire down at the pier,” he said. “There’s so many people out, it generates a lot more calls.”

This topic of cell phones led to a discussion about what people should do when they call 9-1-1 with one because, unlike with landline phones, the precise location of the caller cannot immediately be determined by the dispatcher.

“If for example you feel like you have a medical emergency, dial 9-1-1 and immediately state where you are because getting someone to you quickly is the key more than saying ‘I think I’m having a heart attack or it is indigestion,’” Councilmember Gleam Davis said.

Herren said her recommendation was correct.

“It’s so important for people to know either where they are or describe where they are because there are so many factors in [location determination] technology,” said Herren, who noted it can be a challenge in a city where so many people are visitors.

He said the dispatch center has the ability to determine the latitude and longitude of a cell phone caller’s location, but the radius can be as much as a couple hundred meters.

“The only thing we need in order to send help is a location,” Herren said. “If all we have is a location, we send the police on a unknown trouble call.”

Herren also said that until recently emergency calls made with cell phones automatically went to the California Highway Patrol, as is State policy.

This has changed, and most local emergency cell phone calls are connected to Santa Monica dispatchers unless they are made on or adjacent to the freeway.

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