SEFD Fire Chief Joseph DeWolf says that problems with the 911 system have been ongoing for the past 25 years.
Photo by Marion Vendituoli

Discontent with the current 911 system in Santa Cruz County (SCC) by local fire districts has led to demands for change in the way that emergency medical calls are handled by the Sheriff’s office.

“In the world of emergency response, seconds matter,” Cheryl Horvath, Tubac Fire Chief, said. 

Horvath, who took over as chief in 2018, has been spearheading the campaign to reform the SCC 911 system. All six of the county’s fire districts have been involved in this effort. “We are all on the same page,” she said. 

911 calls are currently handled by the County Sheriff’s office. Law enforcement calls and emergency/medical calls are handled in the same way, according to Lt. Gerardo Castillo, who oversees the 911 center. A dispatcher transmits the information over the radio to the appropriate responders. 

The fire chiefs are frustrated with the way in which data from these calls is transmitted to the fire districts. Approximately nine years ago the fire districts purchased, with a grant, a system that would transmit information to responders via an upgrade to the law enforcement computer aided device (CAD) at the 911 center.  “There were constant challenges with the sheriff’s dept. It never got implemented. Nine years later it is now outdated. It could be upgraded. The fire chiefs have been asking for years and years for it,” Horvath said. 

But Castillo disagreed with Horvath, saying “that is the fire districts’ system. We allowed them to tie into law enforcement system…They were using it. They didn’t continue paying the yearly fee so it’s not working.” Horvath responded to this by saying “There was never a full implementation of the system” by the 911 center and we couldn’t fully utilize the software, so the fire departments chose not to spend the money on it.” 

When asked why he felt the fire chiefs were unhappy, Castillo responded, “Because they’re not getting their way…I don’t see them stepping up either. They use their money for everything else but this.” “If anything could be done, I would have done it,” he said. 

Horvath expressed her dissatisfaction with the Sheriff’s office. “The Sheriff does not participate in meetings,” she said. “We’re not getting any action.” SEFD Fire Chief Joseph DeWolf said, “The minimum they [SCC 911] are required to do by state law is tone us out and that’s what they do,” expressing his dissatisfaction. “This has been an ongoing thing for the past 25 years and it has not been addressed.” DeWolf pointed out that most fire departments outside of Santa Cruz County pay for dispatch. Horvath estimates that it would cost up to “tens of thousands of dollars” for the upgrades at this point. The fire districts are looking at how sophisticated a system they would require and what the smaller districts might be able to afford.

Another area of concern is the lack of trained emergency/ medical dispatchers (EMDs) at the 911 center. There is a shortage of dispatchers, Castillo said. There should be 11 dispatchers, but currently there are only five. None of SCC dispatchers are trained EMDs, nor are there any plans for the sheriff’s office to train any of their dispatchers as EMDs. An EMD is required to stay on the phone during an emergency and provide ‘pre-arrival instructions,’ to help the caller deal with the situation until responders arrive. At present, the SCC 911 dispatchers will keep the line open if they perceive that the emergency is life threatening, but do not offer any instruction on dealing with the situation. “We’re not allowed to provide pre-arrival instruction,” Castillo said.  

The lack of EMDs at the 911 center is due to the added expense of the required training and the staffing shortage. “An EMD can’t take law enforcement calls,” Javier De La Ossa, supervisor of the 911 center explained. EMDS must stay on the line with the emergency until it is resolved, and the dispatcher cannot leave that call to take another call. The sheriff’s office is unwilling to take on the added expense of having trained EMDs, according to Castillo. “I approached the fire chiefs – What are you willing to do? I asked them for funding. They need to put up some dollars.”

“I think it is important to have an EMD,” Patagonia Fire Chief Ike Isakson said. The Patagonia Fire Department averages between 15 to 20 emergency calls per month, according to Isakson. Although he feels that the system in general works well, “It could be improved.” He has concerns, however, about the cost of improving the system. 

DeWolf expressed frustration with other aspects of the 911 system. In addition to the poor quality of transmissions and the inability to understand some of the dispatchers, he also felt that problems arise because “they do not know this area. They don’t understand that we cover Pima County,” he said. “We’ve got to come up with something to get better dispatch for our communities.” “It’s a really bad situation,” SEFD Board of Directors member Chris Johnson said. “Somebody’s going to die and somebody’s going to sue,” he added.

The fire chiefs are looking at several options, including switching to the 911 system run by the city of Nogales, which does utilize an upgraded CAD system. SCC Supervisor Bruce Bracker suggested that the two 911 centers in the county should merge to provide better efficiency. “I would like to see a single dispatch system,” he said, citing the possibilities for “enhanced service and reduced costs” and “a more robust office and infrastructure.” He pointed out, however, that “the Board of Supervisors doesn’t have the authority to remove the 911 center from the Sheriff’s control.” 

The fire chiefs are also looking at using Cochise County’s 911 center, or even searching further afield. “At this time, we are looking at any and all options to make this system better,” Horvath said.