L.A.-area fire departments consider linking 911 dispatch systems
Top commanders from the Los Angeles city and county fire departments are exploring ways to connect their dispatch systems and ensure that the closest available rescuers are sent to victims during life-threatening emergencies, according to interviews and records obtained by The Times.
The fire chiefs from county, city and Glendale fire departments recently met to discuss creation of a regional network that would automatically deploy fire and rescue units based on their proximity to an emergency, regardless of jurisdictional boundaries, according to L.A. County Fire Chief Daryl Osby.
“We began the process of identifying subject matter experts within the communications and dispatch community and to seek other agencies regarding multi-agency dispatching,” Osby wrote in a report to the county Board of Supervisors.
The report was prepared in response to a motion by Supervisor Mike Antonovich following a Times investigation that found the Los Angeles Fire Department rarely calls on the county fire agency for assistance, resulting in longer waits in medical emergencies along the city’s jagged borders.
In more than 70,000 medical calls since 2007, LAFD sent rescuers to locations where county firehouses were closer, a Times analysis of dispatch records found. More than 1,300 of those cases were cardiac arrests, where delays of seconds can be critical because irreversible brain damage can begin just four minutes after the heart stops beating.
A spokesman for city Fire Chief Brian Cummings did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But Los Angeles Fire Commissioner Alan Skobin said the discussions about regional dispatching were a positive step forward.
“Any time that you can take out of the process will result in saving lives,” said Skobin, who asked the LAFD for a similar review of dispatching policies after The Times report.
For years, other fire agencies across the country have pooled resources and used technology for “automatic-aid” agreements that alert the closest rescue units, without regard to city or county boundaries. Some of the largest fire departments in California, including those serving Orange County, San Jose and San Diego, link their dispatch operations.
In Los Angeles, the city and county fire departments signed an agreement in 1979 to being the process of linking their dispatch centers, but never completed the task. Currently, dispatchers have to use phone lines to summon assistance from outside agencies, a process that some officials say takes too long.
Both departments also rely on aging computer networks to run operations that send rescuers to hundreds of thousands of emergencies a year. Spending time and money to upgrade the current dispatch systems with technology needed to link the agencies would be a “short-lived investment,” Osby said in his report.
The best alternative would be to invest any available funds in new dispatch systems, he said. The county Fire Department is considering buying a new 911 computer system, Chief Deputy Mike Metro said.
“It would be nice,” Metro said, but “it’s a very, very expensive proposition.”
The LAFD is expected to begin seeking bids for a replacement dispatch system in the spring, officials said.
“This is timely,” Skobin said. “We have to build the momentum.”
— Robert J. Lopez and Ben Welsh
Photo: LAFD Dispatcher Mark Gilchrist stands in his specially designed wheelchair working on a call as his helper dog Calendar lies nearby. Source: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times