A program to consolidate the region’s emergency communications services drew fresh criticism this month following the hiring of an executive director to oversee the transition.
Steve Reinke, former director of the Deschutes County 911 Service District in Oregon, has been hired to oversee the integration of emergency communication services across the county into a single communications center, operating under the proposed “SPOCOM” public authority. Supporters of the move, particularly the SPOCOM board, say that consolidating emergency communication services into one center will improve response times, as well as interagency communication, by reducing call transfers.
However, some Spokane City Council members and 911 dispatchers say the concerns of current employees should have been addressed prior to the hiring. Employees have requested more information and time, and have questioned whether a change in the way 911 operates is even necessary.
Spokane City Councilwoman Karen Stratton said it was irresponsible to hire a new director without publishing a budget for the new center, or answering the City Council’s and employees’ questions about the effectiveness of an integrated system. She said she has not received definitive answers on what could happen to dispatchers’ benefits if they are to work for the center instead of the city.
City Council President Ben Stuckart said the board should have worked with City Council and employees throughout the process and addressed concerns before bringing in a new employee:
“If you can’t answer the basic questions about why you’re doing something and how it’s going to be better than the old system, then you definitely shouldn’t be hiring an executive director.”
Spokane County CEO Gerry Gemmill, a member of the SPOCOM board, said he understands why employees and council members may be frustrated when their questions aren’t answered, but the board hasn’t yet developed plans to address some of their concerns.
“I think part of the issue (around) communication, sometimes I think people are asking questions before we actually have answers,” Gemmill said. “ … I would rather get it right than fast.”
He said several city representatives are on the SPOCOM board, and the agency won’t make any serious changes before they are ready. The board also wants to retain all its employees, he said, and is working toward benefits and compensation packages that are fair to everyone.
Spokane Police Dispatcher Kyle Steinmetz and Spokane Fire Dispatcher Kelly Masjoan said they still don’t know what will happen to their benefits, retirement and pay once the new center goes live, which could be as soon as March, according to SPOCOM Board Chair and Spokane Valley Fire Chief Bryan Collins.
Masjoan said after the pushback and questions from City Council and employees, she and her co-workers were shocked the SPOCOM board still moved forward and hired a director.
“All of us in the building are like ‘Holy smokes,’ ” she said, “This is a train that’s already three-quarters down the tracks.”
Collins said Reinke was hired due to his experience overseeing other 911 transitions and work at integrated centers. Reinke is currently advising Cowlitz County through its transition into an emergency management public authority, and also has been involved in the Rivercom 911 center, which consolidated emergency communications in Douglas and Chelan counties.
Reinke recently retired as the director of the Deschutes County 911 Service District, where police officers have faced emergency communication issues for months after the county switched from an old radio system to a new digital system. Police filed an Occupational Safety and Health complaint in December, saying the new system performed so poorly it was putting lives at risk.
Deschutes County Administrator Tom Anderson said the county was afraid the old system might fail if it wasn’t replaced quickly, and Reinke dealt with the situation as well as was possible.
SPOCOM spokeswoman Kirstin Davis said Reinke’s position is funded through Proposition 1, an emergency communications sales and use tax for improving emergency services. She said Reinke, who will begin work Tuesday, is the only employee compensated through the tax.
Stratton said she and her office are looking into whether employee compensation is an appropriate use for Proposition 1 tax dollars and have sent an inquiry to the Washington state auditor’s office. The Spokane City Council also has voted to delay payments to Stuart Consulting Group, the contractor that is overseeing the integration project, and passed an ordinance designed to slow efforts to integrate 911.
Masjoan said data and arguments she has heard from proponents of SPOCOM don’t match up with what she’s seen in the nine years she has worked as a dispatcher. She said the current process, which relies on specially trained fire and police dispatchers, could be improved with investment and technology, but otherwise works well. A rushed transition that leaves out employee input could lead some experienced dispatchers and managers to leave Spokane she said, which could slow down response times or create a public safety hazard.
“The system’s not broken,” Masjoan said.
Reinke, who has worked with employees and unions through transitions in the past, said he is looking forward to answering dispatchers’ questions once he arrives.
“I think the employees are very concerned, and I don’t blame them a bit,” Reinke said. “This is their livelihood, and it’s one of the hardest jobs out there.”