The city of Spokane gave layoff notices to more than half of its fire dispatchers Tuesday after many of the fire departments it provides services for said they would switch to a new emergency communications center.
City spokeswoman Marlene Feist said the city once contracted with other fire departments across the area for emergency communications, but those fire departments have said they will now be working with the new Spokane Regional Emergency Communications Center instead.
Once operations begin at the new dispatch center on July 1, the city will only need eight of its 18 fire dispatchers.
Bryan Collins, chairman of the SREC Board and Spokane Valley Fire Department chief, said the regional center offered those employees similar positions at the new center.
If the city of Spokane agrees to join SREC, Collins said dispatchers would be paid the same hourly wage.
In a May 6 letter to City Council members and the mayor, the SREC board asked the city to reconsider opting out of the new system; SREC said it has until May 21 to decide.
Feist said the council will have to make the decision on whether to join SREC because of a law it passed last fall requiring city police and firefighters to work only with city dispatchers. Mayor David Condon vetoed the law, but the council overrode his veto.
In the mayor’s veto letter in November, he warned the council that the city might need to lay off 10 employees if it didn’t join the new system.
Condon, who supports integrating with SREC, said the city and every other agency which considered switching to SREC had been provided information and noted that the city has worked toward an integrated emergency communication system for years.
“Every other agency believes it’s the right way to go,” he said.
City Council President Ben Stuckart called SREC’s deadline arbitrary and said the council doesn’t have enough information to make a decision in a few weeks. He said the lack of communication between the mayor’s administration, the SREC board, city employees and the council has led to confusion and a loss of trust.
“This is absolutely the worst public policy process I have ever seen,” he said.
Collins said SREC needs to have a solid start date so the 150 people who currently work for SREC know when to start.
“Our employees want to know what their future looks like,” he said.
He said the city fire chief, police chief and administrator are also on the SREC board and have been involved throughout the process.
Stuckart said the council plans to draft a few questions for SREC during its Thursday afternoon study session. He said he hasn’t yet made a decision about joining the new system.
If the city had been allowed to place an elected official on the SREC governing board, which is made up of area fire and police chiefs, the process may have gone differently, said Councilwoman Karen Stratton.
She said SREC had answered more of the council’s questions in the past few weeks, but council members are still waiting for more information.
“It’s been a very frustrating process, and unfortunately our employees are stuck in the middle,” she said.
She said several council members are also concerned that the money used to pay for SREC operations, which comes from a one-tenth of 1% tax Spokane County voters passed in 2017, is only designated for new radios and communication towers.
Stratton said she also is concerned that there may not be enough money from the tax to pay for the communication centers and emergency communications infrastructure long-term.
Feist said the city now spends about $3.9 million on emergency communications and it receives and spends an additional $2.1 million from other fire districts.
If the city does not integrate with SREC, it estimates it will cost about $5 million a year to do emergency communications only in the city. If the city joins SREC, it anticipates spending about $3.25 million a year early on, and less over time.
Councilwomen Lori Kinnear and Candace Mumm said they weren’t necessarily opposed to an integrated system, but the council still has questions about what it would mean for employees, the legality and sustainability of how it is funded and if it’s in the best interest of Spokane residents.
“In theory, we all agree that integration is a good idea, but the devil is in the details,” Kinnear said.
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