City of Spokane dispatchers may not be a part of a new regionwide communications center following the City Council’s decision to require dispatchers to work exclusively with city public safety employees.
The new emergency communications center, which has been heavily criticized by both council and city dispatchers, would have brought county and city emergency communication services together under one roof. Steve Reinke, executive director of the new Spokane Regional Emergency Communications Center, said if the city doesn’t commit to integrating, County Sheriff’s Office dispatchers, 911 call takers and radio system employees will do so regardless.
City Council President Ben Stuckart said the county and the SREC board haven’t presented compelling evidence that combining dispatch would save money or improve services. He said the council’s ordinance, which requires police and fire services to work only with city dispatchers, was designed to reassure dispatchers that they would still have city jobs and benefits.
Many city employees testified last week, sent emails or wrote letters to local publications, including The Spokesman-Review, detailing their concerns over quality-of-service reductions or losing their health or retirement benefits. Joe Cavanaugh, president of Local 270, said he would support anything the Ccity Council does, within reason, to stop the integration going forward.
He said he believes dispatch service could be improved for outlying areas, but could be reduced in the city going forward. Changing the way police officers interact with dispatchers could create public safety issues as well, he said.
Stuckart said the city could potentially still integrate, if its requests for information, public safety concerns and better representation on the board are addressed.
“It’s up to (the SREC board) to convince us,” he said. “We’re not going to do the work for them.”
The board includes one elected official – Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich – County CEO Gerry Gemmill, Spokane City Administrator Theresa Sanders, three police chiefs and five fire chiefs. Stuckart, who joined a petition to the board asking for more representation, said it should have some elected officials on it governing emergency communications.
In an interview last week, County Commissioner Al French said the county was still committed to the integration process, regardless of the city’s participation.
Reinke said it was up to the county to change the makeup of the SREC board to include City Council members. French said it was up to the city whether or not to move toward integration.
“It’s up to the city to decide whether they want to be part of the regional system or not,” he said. “If they do, great. If they don’t, that’s fine. We’re still moving forward.”
Reinke said he hopes that once the SREC budget and financial projections are complete, the city will want to integrate. Under the new system, he anticipates start-up costs may initially be more, but they would be paid for by reserve funds for the 911 phone tax and the one-tenth-of-1-percent sales tax. In the long term, he projects that the center won’t need as many employees and costs may be lower. SREC is not planning to lay off employees, he said, but instead gradually reduce staffing during job turnover.
He said the SREC also hopes to find ways to be more efficient, have committed to paying everyone at least the same amount as their previous employers and are looking for ways to ensure employees have the same or better benefits.
Reinke said if the city doesn’t integrate and the county does, the way the city handles calls won’t change dramatically. Under the current system, call takers answer crime check and 911 calls and transfer them to fire or police dispatchers, depending on the emergency. If the county integrates without the city, he said, SREC would take all calls that go to the initial call takers and transfer them to city of Spokane fire or police dispatchers if they are within city limits. Other county calls would be dispatched by SREC.
Spokane Valley Fire Chief Bryan Collins, chair of the SREC Board, said the integration would occur sometime next year, but the decision was up to Reinke.