Despite orders from the Spokane City Council to maintain an independent dispatch crew for firefighters, the city is now relying on a new regional system to handle emergency calls.
As it prepares for the rest of the county to move forward with a new regional 911 dispatch system, the city has lost so many fire dispatchers that it can no longer fully provide fire dispatch services to itself or its neighbors.
The city is now relying on Spokane Regional Emergency Communications – which the City Council explicitly took action last month to prevent the city from joining – to provide fire dispatch services because so many of the city’s dispatchers have been laid off or left.
It is the latest development in what has been a monthslong standoff between the administration and the City Council over whether to join the new system. Proponents, including Mayor David Condon, argue the new regional system will offer better service and be more efficient than the city’s current operation, but council members have pressed for more information before joining.
The dispatcher shortage ties back to the city’s decision in May to lay off 10 fire dispatchers, anticipating that several of the Spokane County fire districts it provides dispatch services for would leave and join the new regional system that launched July 1.
Under the terms of a five-year agreement that expires at the end of 2021, the city provides fire dispatch services to 10 fire districts and the cities of Airway Heights, Cheney and Medical Lake.
Expecting member agencies to abandon it July 1, the city argued it would require only eight dispatchers moving forward.
But other fire dispatchers also have fled, in addition to the 10 who were laid off, leaving the city short of what it needs to provide adequate fire dispatching services on its own.
That has forced the city to rely on the new regional system – which now employs many of the dispatchers the city just laid off – for fire dispatch services. The change has not negatively impacted the city’s ability to respond to emergencies, according to City Administrator Theresa Sanders.
“At the end of the day, a group of fire dispatchers left work on Friday, came back on Monday and were doing essentially the same job,” Sanders said.
One of the five remaining city fire dispatchers, Kelly Masjoan, detailed the situation in an email to the City Council on Friday morning.
“It has been a surreal experience, as we are working in the same room with our former colleagues, except now have different employers. Only a few of us remain in the SFD uniform now, and new SREC signs have gone up on office doors,” Masjoan wrote.
The City Council voted unanimously last month against joining the new regional dispatch center, which launched on July 1.
Under the city’s current system, the city of Spokane provides fire dispatch services for itself and a number of neighboring fire districts and cities in Spokane County. In the event of a fire in Spokane or one of its partner districts, for example, a 911 call receiver would route the call to Spokane fire dispatchers, who would then speak to the caller and dispatch firefighters to the scene.
The Spokane Regional Emergency Communications Center’s goal is to bring independent dispatch centers across the county under a single roof. Under the new system, 911 call takers would be trained to see the call through to the end – no transfer necessary. Meanwhile, through a computer-aided dispatch system, a dispatcher would see information in real time that would allow him or her to dispatch the necessary emergency personnel, according to Steve Reinke, executive director of the Spokane Regional Emergency Communications Center.
“The real enhancement to the service is that we don’t have to interrupt that process,” Reinke said.
The new center also views itself as not only more efficient in the long run, but better able to respond to changing industry standards
“It’s not just about cost, it’s about doing the job better,” Reinke said.
Councilman Breean Beggs argues that, despite the July 1 target date for consolidation, the other fire districts are contractually obligated to remain with the city at least through the end of the year.
But by laying off 10 of its dispatchers and losing several more by the employees’ own choice, Beggs said the city is now incapable of providing dispatch services to its neighbors – therefore violating the agreement and potentially allowing the other departments to join the new regional system.
“It’s a completely self-inflicted wound and chaos that the city administration created,” Beggs said.
Councilwoman Karen Stratton called it “despicable.”
“It’s bullying,” Stratton said. “It’s pushing us up against a wall, saying ‘Here you go, this is what you get for not working with us.’ ”
The agreement between the city of Spokane and the other districts requires there be at least three personnel – including at least two dispatchers and one shift supervisor – assigned to the city-led system, 24 hours per day.
Now, the towns and fire districts that signed on with the city “can arguably cancel their contract early, because we’re not providing the services because our administration laid off people without having notice that we didn’t have customers,” Beggs said.
On July 2, the policy board that governs the city’s shared system signed a resolution alleging a breach of contract by the city of Spokane due to the recent staffing reduction. Per the terms of the agreement, member districts now have 90 days to evaluate their participation in the group and can choose to leave.
“There’s nothing necessarily adversarial about this,” said Brian Snure, an attorney representing the policy board. “It was procedural.”
Each member of the agreement will have to make their own decision on the future of their dispatch services, Snure said.
The city’s administration disagrees with the council’s assertion that the other districts are bound by the agreement to use the city’s services through the end of the year.
Expecting that the other districts could and would leave the city’s system, Condon argued that laying off the city’s dispatchers was not only necessary but also in their own interest. Otherwise, the new regional system would have filled the open positions from elsewhere, he said.
“We have been very proactive for the betterment of the individual,” Condon said.
With the sudden dearth of dispatchers, the city is now relying on the new regional system to provide fire dispatch services. The cost of using the new system in this capacity remains unclear, but city officials acknowledge it will be greater than what the city had budgeted for.
The council’s objection to the regionwide system has centered on two concerns. First, its members have asked for more detail on the purported financial and operational benefits of the regional center.
“We need to know the financials, which they don’t know yet,” Beggs said. “It’s not that they’re hiding them from us. They don’t know.”
Sanders acknowledged the financial details are not completely ironed out, but she said work is continuing on a five-year capital plan and operational model that will help illuminate what the long-term financial picture of participating in a regional dispatch center will mean for the city.
Council members also have ought assurances that the city’s dispatchers would be taken care of in new roles at the communications center.
“Unless you can show us that our employees are going to be fully whole, including raises, and you can show us that we really will have cost savings – money savings for the city – and that we’re going to get these improvements, why would we change?” Beggs said. “Our system works pretty darn well as it is.”
Stratton suggested the council could hire its own attorney to determine its next steps.
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