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San Ramon: Police, fire district join forces on new emergency dispatch center

'It really helps enhance public safety in the Valley,' police chief says

San Ramon has ushered in a new era for city emergency dispatch with the opening of the San Ramon Police Department and San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District joint 911 call center.

For both agencies, the new San Ramon Valley 911 Communications Center -- which has been on-line since the start of June -- means they are now the first to receive emergency calls made within San Ramon's city limits. The SRPD previously contracted dispatch services out to the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Office, which would in turn redirect any fire and medical calls in San Ramon to the SRVFPD.

"It was one of those things that really made perfect sense," San Ramon police chief Joe Gorton said during an interview last week. "It really helps enhance public safety in the Valley."

"Based on how it's gone so far, it's a home run," SRVFPD fire chief Paige Meyer added.

More than three-dozen people -- mainly city and fire district officials -- attended a ceremonial ribbon-cutting last Wednesday for the new communications center at Fire Station 31 on San Ramon Valley Boulevard in Danville, just south of Sycamore Valley Road. The room, which housed SRVFPD's previous dispatch center, was renovated and upgraded this spring.

Having a combined dispatch center can shave 60-90 seconds off response times for fire and medical emergencies in San Ramon since those calls will no longer be fielded initially by the sheriff's office dispatch, city and fire district officials said.

"Seconds are the difference between life and death ... or finding suspects," Meyer said.

"To cut off 60 seconds, that's a game-changer for an organization that already prides itself on being one of the fastest responders in the state," San Ramon Mayor Bill Clarkson added, referring to San Ramon Valley Fire.

The joint dispatch center will also handle fire and medical emergency calls redirected from the sheriff's office or California Highway Patrol for Danville and unincorporated San Ramon Valley communities like Alamo, Blackhawk and Diablo. A law enforcement agency must be the primary public safety answering point for 911 calls.

The San Ramon Valley 911 Communications Center will receive about six times as many calls as the prior SRVFPD dispatch center because of the volume and types of calls required of SRPD.

From San Ramon's perspective, Gorton said some of the other key advantages of the joint endeavor are the dispatch center can now be customized to San Ramon and it received significant technology upgrades -- whereas the SRPD had been limited to whatever strategies the sheriff's office implemented.

The new center also utilizes an integrated geographical locator program, where police supervisors on the scene and dispatchers can see the location of each police vehicle and sometimes cut down on response times by sending the nearest police unit to the caller, Gorton said.

The concept of joining forces for dispatch developed early last year, and the San Ramon City Council and SRVFPD Board of Directors gave their support later that spring.

A 10-month feasibility study followed before renovations began for the joint center in March, according to communications center manager Denise Pangelinan. SRVFPD dispatchers worked in the mobile communications unit on-site at Fire Station 31 during construction.

The project involved replacing the computer system, outdated furniture and wiring with more modern equipment, including new phone, radio and computer-aided dispatch systems. The number of workstations increased from four to six, and the fire district hired three new dispatchers, Pangelinan said.

The SRVFPD dispatchers also had to complete new certifications and trainings as well as obtain certain new clearances in order to handle police calls and service requests, she added.

The dispatchers moved back into the revamped communications center for regular fire calls May 17, and the SRPD calls were added to the system in a soft-opening beginning June 1.

Meyer credited dispatch center employees for "stepping up" during the transition.

The upgrades cost about $1.4 million, initially funded by the fire district, with the city's share to be recouped later, Meyer said. A little more than $300,000 in other start-up costs for software and equipment were contributed by the East Bay Regional Communications System Authority and the state Office of Emergency Services.

The communications center will cost about $3 million each year to operate, with personnel costs accounting for a majority of that price-tag, Meyer said.

Over the course of the first four years, the city will pay the district back for the start-up costs in addition to the city's share of annual dispatch center costs, Meyer said. With the current payment schedule, by the fifth year the district would be fully paid back.

Starting in the fifth year, the goal would be to have a 50-50 contribution rate for the dispatch center by the district and the city.

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