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Saturday, March 28, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: A single, consolidated 911 system should remain the ultimate goal

The Spokesman-Review

The Spokane Regional Emergency Communications system will go live on Monday without the city of Spokane. The City Council voted unanimously to keep the city’s own 911 dispatch center in operation.

The council is rightly concerned that the regional board hasn’t been transparent enough with the city about what the new system will look like and how it will actually make emergency service response times faster. Caution when it comes to so important (and expensive) a public service is warranted.

And caution is just what city residents got from their leaders. Councilwoman Candace Mumm said the SREC board hasn’t been able to provide budgets, explain what the new center will look like or how it will save money. The board has been slow to provide answers, and the answers it has provide have shifted.

“I’m not interested in going into business with that type of group that doesn’t have it together yet,” Mumm said. “Maybe we’ll be able to integrate and do it slowly and properly, but we’re not there yet at all.”

These are reasonable concerns that the SREC board should work to address. It is a new agency, though, so the council should have some patience as the two groups work through the issues. Caution is one thing, intransigence is another.

The bottom line is simple: Will the regional system be more efficient than the current piecemeal approach? Will it save money and decrease response time, thus potentially saving lives and enhancing public safety?

The answer to both those questions is, most likely, yes. Currently, calls to 911 go to Spokane County’s 911 agency. Depending on the emergency, county dispatchers transfer to dispatchers for the appropriate agency: city fire or police or other appropriate locality.

These transfers take time and can waste precious seconds. The disjointed system also makes it difficult to impossible to track response times – which ironically makes it difficult to make a case that the new system will improve those response times, which is one of the criticisms the council has levied.

“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.”

City dispatchers and their union also oppose the system, fearful they could lose jobs and the ability to collectively bargain under the new system. But their jobs are at risk, regardless of whether the city joins. In May, the city announced the layoff of 10 dispatchers — more than half — because fire departments across the area have said they’ll work with the new regional system instead of the city.

Many of those employees have already been offered similar positions with the regional center, and the chairman of the SREC board said the employees will be paid the same hourly wage. There is no guarantee, however, that a streamlined and integrated system won’t, in the end, require fewer dispatchers.

Resistance to a new system that could cost your job is certainly rational from a standpoint of pure self-interest, but such considerations should not ultimately sway council members, who need to keep the bigger picture and overall public safety foremost in mind. Council members must remember that their first duty is to the taxpaying public, not to the union.

A coordinated, integrated emergency dispatch for the county seems like it would be a good idea that will save money and lives. The city of Spokane is the lone holdout as the system prepares to go live.

It’s OK to move slowly on this. Everyone wants the merger to go well. Better to get all of the details and information clarified before finalizing an agreement. Then no one can complain later that there were surprises baked into the deal. The SREC board simply needs to make the convincing case. That shouldn’t be so hard.

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