Ambulance dispatch options up in air

Which agency should be in charge of dispatching ambulances on the Peninsula is at the heart of a growing debate prompted by county officials’ first search for emergency ambulance services providers in more than a decade.

On Tuesday, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors will vote on a request for proposals from new providers in anticipation of the contract with American Medical Response West ending June 30, 2009.

But the request contains a controversial clause: the option to privatize ambulance dispatch. All dispatch — from law enforcement to fire to ambulance — is currently handled by the county’s Public Safety Communications dispatch center. But the request for proposals offers providers the option of making an offer to dispatch its own ambulances.

County dispatchers will still interview 911 callers and provide all instructions, but instead of dispatching the ambulance, there would be an electronic transfer of information from the county’s computer-aided dispatch system (CAD) to that of the ambulance company’s, county Emergency Medical Services Administrator Barbara Pletz said.

The benefit of the option is that the provider would take on the $1 million to $4 million cost of replacing the county’sCAD system, which was installed in 1994, San Mateo County Health Department spokeswoman Beverly Thames said. A study done last fall recommended replacing the system, which works well for fire and police dispatch but struggles to keep up with the more complicated ambulance dispatch.

While acknowledging the cost savings, Menlo Park Fire Protection District Chief Harold Schapelhouman said he is fiercely opposed to the idea. Having all dispatch consolidated in one place would reduce the likelihood of calls being dropped or mishandled, he said. Just because the information is transferred by computer does not mean it’s any safer, he said.

“Just like with e-mail, sometimes people send it but you don’t get it. It could be human error, it could be lost in cyberspace,” he said. “The less transfers you make in any kind of an emergency, the better.”

Schapelhouman said that 10 years ago, his department joined a consolidated countywide dispatch system because fire officials were convinced of the benefits of having all dispatch under one roof. The fact that county officials are now considering a partial privatization option has prompted the fire chief to consider breaking with the system, he said.

Supervisor Jerry Hill said he had his own concerns about communication problems and delays and would probably not support the request for proposals as it is currently written.

Hill said the privatization would also result in an estimated five county dispatchers being laid off.

tbarak@examiner.com

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