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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Plan to combine Spokane’s regional 911 call response draws rebuke from police, fire and clerical workers

FILE - At the Spokane County regional fire dispatch center, dispatcher Mike Cappellano monitors a call of a tree that fell onto a house on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012. The city and county are exploring the option of “integrating” emergency communications which city officials say will reduce the amount of time needed to get vehicles on the street. But the pitch is drawing concern from unions who say revisions aren’t needed and could actually slow response time. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

A plan to alter the way the region’s police and fire departments receive calls and send help to emergencies is drawing a unified rebuke from local labor unions and questions from the Spokane City Council.

City lawmakers heard the case Thursday from Spokane City Administrator Theresa Sanders and a contractor recommending “integration” of the city’s emergency dispatch services, which they said would cut down on response times and potentially free up money for other uses by the police and fire departments. The room was crowded with representatives of labor groups for police and fire officials, as well as city clerical workers, many of whom fear the loss of their jobs and accumulated benefits under the new system. They also say the move would delay service within Spokane city limits.

Those concerns prompted the City Council to vote earlier this month to request the city halt talks on forming the new system, which is being referred to as “SPOCOM,” until questions about improved services and cost savings are answered. Lawmakers left the room Thursday concerned those questions still hadn’t been answered.

“I thought we’d have data and evidence that this was the right move to move forward,” City Council President Ben Stuckart said. “To sit here and have zero, anything, presented to us, was disappointing to me, as a policymaker.”

Sanders and De Hicks, of Stuart Consulting Group, which is working with the county and city on creating the new dispatch entity, said an integrated system is an industry standard. Under the current system, a 911 operator takes the call initially and must determine whether to route it to separated police and fire dispatchers, a process that varies in length but can take several minutes. The proposal, they said, would cut down on that period of uncertainty at the beginning of a call and get emergency vehicles on the road quicker.

“We have delays in dispatch because of our fractured system between 911 and our dispatchers,” Sanders said. “We have less-than-stellar service delivery and follow-up with our citizens, from the Crime Check side. We have inconsistencies with how we’re handling dispatch with our various entities.”

Crime Check is the county-wide nonemergency call-taking system.

Sanders noted that the creation of such a system was one of the planks of the negotiated two-year strategic plan agreed to by Mayor David Condon and city lawmakers. She also said the switch would require no additional investment of city dollars.

City Council members pressed for specifics on how much time and money could be saved under the new system.

“Can you, be specific, in that? What are the delays? How many have we had? What’s the data there?” City Councilwoman Karen Stratton asked.

“We’re getting notes for all these questions, and what we don’t answer today we’ll compile and deliver to everybody as a part of our FAQs,” Sanders responded.

City spokesman Brian Coddington said Friday that staff were assembling the numbers requested by council and that they would be provided in the coming weeks.

“It’s a complex and complicated discussion, set up over a number of years,” Coddington said. “It’s going to take a little while to sort through all the details.”

Hicks gave an example of a heart attack call, that could require an extra 45 seconds to two minutes to determine which agency needed to respond.

“A handoff, when fire takes it, starts it all over again,” Hicks said. “In an integrated center, that does not happen.”

But Hicks said later that, in an integrated system, some handoff of information would still be needed. Union groups have said that dispatchers trained in law enforcement and fire or medical response have unique sets of skills that wouldn’t translate well to a combined system. Hicks said integrating would enable the hiring and training of a larger pool of workers for the system.

Letters to city officials from the largest city union, Local 270 of the Washington State Council of City and County Employees; the Spokane Firefighters Union; the Spokane Police Guild; and the Spokane Police Lieutenants and Captains Association urged a pause on the push for the new system. They argued that labor unions had been left out of negotiations and pointed to an internal memo circulated at City Hall earlier this spring indicating workers could lose their union-represented status and would not have guaranteed jobs under the new system.

“This, and the foreseeable impacts of this proposed reorganization to our members leaves us with no other alternatives but to withdraw our involvement (as limited as it was) and to oppose the centralized dispatch proposal,” wrote Joe Cavanaugh, president of Local 270, in a letter to the mayor’s office dated April 10. In a letter to Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer, the firefighters union went further, threatening to file an unfair labor practice against the city if meetings were not scheduled to negotiate changes.

Schaeffer and Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl attended the meeting. Schaeffer said he hadn’t worked under an integrated system, but that his dispatchers were well-equipped once 911 operators handed the calls over to them.

“We are damn good at processing calls, and putting trucks on the road,” Schaeffer said.

Sanders said the city welcomed the involvement of the labor groups now that the city and county are working to hire a new executive director to oversee the new emergency communications entity.

“I appreciate, from the labor folks in the room, your engagement at this point,” Sanders said. “Now is the right time for us to begin those conversations, but we haven’t started them yet.”

Coddington said the city wasn’t surprised by the response of the unions, but reiterated that the leadership of the organization needed to be in place before labor discussions could begin.

“We’re going to continue to work through the framework of the structure,” he said. “Really, the unions need more detail, too.”

Stuckart said the notion that the council was doing the bidding of the unions by opposing the new center wasn’t true, noting that even Councilman Mike Fagan, often the conservative voice on the panel, also had concerns about what the switch would mean for employees.

Fagan said his concerns extended beyond union representation, but believed those questions needed to be answered before the city moved forward.

“I wasn’t seeing anything in any of the correspondence between the administration and the council that gave me a level of confidence that we had our employees as a priority,” Fagan said.

Union tension with an integrated system is not unique to Spokane. When New York City switched to an integrated system in 2009, organized labor there began questioning whether several high-profile incidents where response times were delayed had to do with the switch, according to reporting by the New York Times. City officials said that wasn’t the case, but earlier this year New York returned to directing fire calls specifically to dispatchers for the Fire Department, according to the New York Daily News.

Council members also are concerned the new governing board of the agency won’t give the city enough say in the how the system is run, potentially giving a majority of the representation to areas outside of city limits.

“We’re the biggest entity in the county, and we know that the amount of calls that the city of Spokane gets far outweighs the rest of the county,” Fagan said.

Two-thirds of the employees working at the combined communications center work for Spokane County, Sanders said. Also, county taxes fund a majority of the operations there.

Sanders said she expected an executive director to be named sometime in the middle of June.