Coulee Area Looks For New Dispatchers Cutbacks Mean Elimination Of Federal Facility, But Help May Be On The Way
There’s still plenty of water behind Grand Coulee Dam, but federal support is drying up for the four small towns in the dam’s shadow.
Under pressure to help cut the federal budget, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation plans to eliminate its fire department and emergency dispatching center at the dam.
Many residents are concerned about the loss of mutual aid from the area’s only full-time, paid firefighters. And they fear a serious reduction in public safety from closure of the dispatching center, which serves Grand Coulee, Coulee Dam, Electric City and Elmer City.
The existing unified dispatching may be divided among other agencies that serve the four towns and several small, unincorporated communities. The communities - with a combined population of about 4,000 - are at the outermost tips of four counties and the Colville Indian Reservation.
While Grand Coulee and Electric City are in Grant County and unincorporated Del Rio is in Douglas County, Coulee Dam is divided among three counties: Grant, Okanogan and Douglas.
Also, about half of Coulee Dam and all of Elmer City is in the Colville Reservation. And the unincorporated Lakewood Terrace area is in Lincoln County.
Public officials say the Bureau of Reclamation dispatching center has done a good job of coordinating mutual aid among the communities’ five volunteer fire departments and two ambulance services. Dispatchers know all of the local landmarks and many, if not most, of the residents.
“If you say ‘Go past the red barn and that’s where the problem is,’ they know what you’re talking about,” Electric City Mayor Ray Halsey said.
Still, Halsey believes there will be no serious problems if dispatching is transferred to one of the “enhanced 911” dispatching centers being developed in the region. He noted towns must decide this year to go with one of the regional centers or face the loss of thousands of dollars in state funding for necessary equipment.
“I think everybody would like to stay with the present arrangement, but you have to depend on Congress to fund it every year, so let’s go with something that we know is a sure deal,” said Grand Coulee Mayor Ray Graybill.
Like all the other mayors in the area, Graybill is convinced there is no chance of continuing to receive free federal dispatching in the long run. He said Grand Coulee already had decided to contract with Grant County at an estimated cost of $8,000 to $9,000 per year.
Coulee Dam, Electric City and Elmer City will hold a combined public meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Coulee Dam Town Hall to review proposals for dispatching service from Grant County, Okanogan County and the Colville Confederated Tribes.
Mayors Rod Hartman of Coulee Dam, Richard Spence of Elmer City and Electric City’s Halsey all said they’d like the entire area to go with a single dispatching service if possible. But they say they’ve been assured by experts that separate dispatching wouldn’t be a serious problem.
Dam manager Steve Clark said he has been instructed to continue providing dispatching service as long as it reasonably takes the towns to make other arrangements. But Clark sees little chance that the new budget-slashing Congress will reverse the decision to close the center, which costs $200,000 to $250,000 a year to operate.
Clark said emergency dispatching is the last vestige of a variety of municipal services the Bureau of Reclamation had to provide when the dam was built in 1933 and no local government existed. He said the dam’s 17-member fire department no longer is needed because of sophisticated automatic fire detection and suppression systems in the powerhouses and tunnels.
Clark said he would like to contract with one of the local fire departments for firefighting service, but he’s prepared to establish a fire brigade with employees who would do other work most of the time.
Grand Coulee Fire Chief Gordon Deppman thinks the Bureau of Reclamation should continue to provide dispatching service because about 1.5 million tourists annually come to see the renowned dam and its free summer laser light shows.
It would make more sense to eliminate the light shows than the fire department and dispatching center, said Becky Billups, a Bureau of Reclamation dispatcher. Billups is one of the leaders of a citizens group fighting to reverse the decision.
The group has scheduled a public meeting at 7 p.m. April 10, at Grand Coulee Middle School.
“I know there’s a big cry for cutting government programs and I agree they should, but not on useful programs,” Billups said.