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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Emails reveal city’s tumultuous handling of new regional 911 dispatch center

Chris Drohan, fire communications officer, works in the fire dispatch area at the new Spokane Regional Emergency Center, or SREC, on July 18. Emails obtained by The Spokesman-Review shed light on the turmoil that accompanied the transition to the controversial new dispatch center. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

As Mayor David Condon’s administration ardently and publicly advocated for the city to join a new emergency communications system, its own staff privately flagged possible violations against the union that would soon represent former city fire dispatchers.

According to emails obtained by The Spokesman-Review through a public records request, the weeks leading up to the launch of new regional 911 dispatch agency called Spokane Regional Emergency Communications, or SREC, were riven with behind-the-scenes turmoil.

As the rest of the county joined the new agency, Spokane public safety officials were left severely short on dispatchers and scrambling to ensure that emergency calls would be properly dispatched.

“The staffing situation is a clear and undeniable Emergency for the City of Spokane,” Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer wrote to the Spokane City Council in a June 29 email, just days before SREC was set to launch.

The emails demonstrate the lengths to which Condon’s administration collaborated with SREC leaders to torpedo the city’s own communications system, the Combined Communications Center.

Public officials say that despite the chaos and added layer of bureaucracy after SREC’s launch, the region’s emergency response has not been sacrificed and continues to be handled appropriately.

As Condon’s administration was ardently and publicly advocating for the city to join a new emergency communications system, the city’s own human resources department was privately flagging what it felt could be unfair labor practices against the union that would soon represent former city fire dispatchers.

Human resources officials were also sounding alarms over “inaccurate” and “misleading” information being provided by the new agency in the weeks leading to its launch in July.

City Administrator Theresa Sanders, who championed the effort, was even taken aback by SREC’s pushback against city HR officials.

“This underscores my many comments about lack of (an) HR professional at SREC. Yikes. Certainly does teach us to keep our concerns to ourselves. Lesson learned,” Sanders said in a June 28 email to city Labor Relations Manager Meghann Steinolfson, who repeatedly pushed SREC for more information.

What is SREC?

Efficient. Effective. Affordable. Sustainable.

That’s how SREC’s proponents describe the new service.

When SREC launched in July, it was the culmination of years of effort by county and city officials to build a streamlined emergency communications system.

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich was so excited about its launch, he said in July it “is going to be one of the best things that happens to this community.”

Proponents argued the new agency would achieve financial and operational efficiencies by bringing multiple agencies under one roof, including the sheriff’s office and myriad public safety agencies across Spokane County.

Operationally, SREC was promoted as an improvement to the current dispatch system that would provide better service times for residents in times of emergency.

For example, under the city’s current emergency response format, when city residents spot a fire, they call 911 and speak with a 911 call taker, who assesses the situation and forwards the call to a fire dispatcher, who picks up the call and directly dispatches firefighters to the scene.

With upgraded technology and training, SREC believes it can cut out the middleman and train its employees to handle both responsibilities – 911 call taking and emergency responder dispatching – thereby reducing response times.

The new agency opened in the home of the city-owned Combined Communications Building near Spokane Community College.

The city remains the only major holdout from joining the agency, even while the two agencies share the same space.

What is the CCC?

SREC’s opponents – the most vocal of whom include members of the Spokane City Council, which voted to bar the city from joining the new agency in June – stress that Spokane already has been a part of a regional communications agency for decades.

Launched in the 1990s, the Combined Communications Center was led by the city and provided dispatch services to the city of Spokane, 10 county fire districts and the cities of Airway Heights, Cheney and Medical Lake.

The interlocal agreement that establishes that CCC was not set to expire until 2021, and its backers say the agency was still viable.

Proponents of the city’s model also say the middlemen SREC wants to cut out of the emergency dispatch process are irreplaceable.

City fire dispatcher supervisor Kelly Masjoan works under that system, and she said it’s not so simple – fire dispatchers have a specialized skill set that includes tasks “you can’t possibly train 911 call takers on.”

“It’s been shown in our particular city, we’ve been been very effective with this two-tiered system,” Masjoan argued.

Employee concerns

Anticipating that its partners in the city-led system would flock to the SREC, Condon announced in May that he would lay off 10 of the city’s 18 fire dispatchers.

Once the member agencies left the city-led system and joined SREC, there wouldn’t be the revenue available to pay those employees, since the CCC members paid the city a total of about $917,000 annually, not including Spokane Valley.

In a July interview with The Spokesman-Review, Condon argued that he laid off the employees for their own good.

If SREC launched without them, Condon said those positions would have been filled from elsewhere. This way, he reasoned, the city’s dispatchers would have a landing spot.

“We have been very proactive for the betterment of the individual,” Condon said.

But members of the City Council argued that the current system was working and that to justify abandoning it, officials had to prove that SREC would more efficient and effective with real data. They also demanded assurances that the switch would be fair to the city dispatch employees.

Some in City Hall were concerned that SREC was not forthright in providing information as it negotiated with the union that would represent incoming employees, according to emails obtained by The Spokesman-Review.

Those employees would leave the Spokane Firefighters Union and join the Everett-based American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 2.

Dispatchers leaving the city’s system had been assured they would continue to make the same salary at SREC as they had with the city.

A union representative emailed city officials after SREC offered Council 2 a wage proposal, asking for clarity on how former city fire dispatchers would fit into SREC’s wage structure.

Steinolfson, the city’s labor relations manager, wrote in a June 27 email that she was concerned SREC could be committing an unfair labor practice by bargaining in bad faith with Council 2, opening itself to legal action.

“I am concerned about the transparency and accuracy of information being provided by SREC,” Steinolfson wrote in the email. “It is clear SREC does not desire the City’s input in these matters any further, so we will step back and keep our concerns to ourselves.”

Steinolfson copied Sanders on the email. Sanders then forwarded it to Spokane Valley Fire Chief Bryan Collins and Spokane County CEO Gerry Gemmill, calling its contents “concerning.”

SREC Human Resources Manager Jeff Tower, in an email to Steinolfson, wrote that if Council 2’s representative was “confused it’s because she is getting information from unknown sources about what the Fire Dispatch offers were. We have provided no information to Council 2 because we had not been asked about them until today.”

A week earlier, in a June 20 email to Sanders, Steinolfson did not mince words when describing the agency’s initial wage proposal to the fire dispatchers’ union. SREC had introduced a wage proposal that was “completely groundless and frankly negligent to even use as a baseline consideration,” she wrote to Sanders.

Steinolfson expressed concern that the agency was “unprepared” as it entered negotiations with Council 2.

“There does not seem to be much structure or strategy going into their negotiations,” she wrote.

The city’s human resources officials had aired concerns in emails to SREC and at staff meetings, citing “misinformation” and “erroneous information” provided by officials at the new communications agency in the lead-up to a transition.

It culminated in a heated exchange between the human resources departments of SREC and the city of Spokane on July 2.

“We have heard and seen inconsistent, vague, and at best, confusing information related to the employee and labor relation needs as part of the transition,” Steinolfson wrote in a July 2 email to Tower.

Tower wrote in an email to Steinolfson that it “has often felt as if City HR, not you specifically, has been more an advocate for the former city employees than a partner to SREC in the transition.”

Tower claimed the city’s allegations were “inaccurate and unprofessional and not something I would have expected from you given how helpful and professional you have been in the past.”

When Steinolfson forwarded her emails with Tower to Sanders, her response was “yikes.”

“This underscores my many comments about lack of (an) HR professional at SREC. Yikes. Certainly does teach us to keep our concerns to ourselves. Lesson learned,” Sanders said.

Marlene Feist, a city spokeswoman, said the emails demonstrate that the city was continuing to advocate for its soon-to-be-former employees.

“The package that they presented to the emergency communications people that ultimately now are working for SREC is very attractive,” Feist said.

Former city dispatchers were allowed to maintain the wage they made under the city, but will not receive cost-of-living adjustments until their SREC counterparts catch up. Some earn better wages than they made under the city, however.

“People were looking at everything SREC was doing with a very critical eye … eventually, it worked itself out and the concerns were addressed,” said Lori Markham, the former acting division chief of the city-led system who is now the director of SREC.

Tim Archer, president of Local 29, called it “poaching,” and said Local 29 dispatchers were afraid if they didn’t join SREC they would soon be out of a job.

“They raised the wages just to bring our dispatchers over,” Archer said. “The only way for them to stand up the way they wanted to on July 1 was to poach those employees.”

Councilwoman Karen Stratton, a regular advocate for city employees and a former City Hall staffer, said, “Everyone was going to make this work whether it was fair to employees or not.”

A bad breakup

In order for SREC to work, fire districts across Spokane County had to sign on to participate. But to sign on to SREC, the fire districts had to first abandon the city-led system.

Condon’s administration was more than willing to show them the door.

The member districts of the city-led system were contractually obligated to stay on through the end of 2019 and provide notice before departing.

But by laying off most of the city’s dispatchers – and having others leave by choice – the city created a staffing shortage in its own dispatch system.

That enabled the districts to get out of their contract and join SREC, which the board of the city-led system voted to do on July 2.

Emails obtained by The Spokesman-Review show officials working to ensure the CCC would not be viable.

Following its vote to block the city from joining SREC, Schaeffer informed the City Council in a lengthy letter that the city’s resources would be so bare that it could only provide dispatch services for its own fire department – and even that, he said, would be challenging.

But in a private email to city administrators, Schaeffer offered a slightly different perspective.

Condon’s plan relied on the assumption that every member of the Combined Communications Center would flock to SREC when it launched on July 1. But Schaeffer was concerned some county fire districts in the CCC wouldn’t jump ship – putting Condon’s argument at risk by providing adequate funding to keep the CCC operating.

Just days before SREC was set to launch, Schaeffer sent an email to city administrators, saying that he was worried “they will make the play for D8 (fire district 8) and D9 to bail out the City Fire Dispatch with additional revenue.”

“If you are still thinking about it, we should notify them as soon as we can that we will not dispatch for any additional agencies,” Schaeffer said.

Schaeffer’s concern was that if county fire districts 8 and 9 stayed with the CCC, it would have adequate funding to meet minimum staffing levels. Without a staffing shortage, other districts wouldn’t be able to get out of the CCC agreement and join SREC.

A week earlier, following the city’s vote, Collins, Spokane Valley fire chief and chairman of the SREC board, worried that the council’s legislation included language “regarding the CCC member fire agencies being able to continue operations with the city.”

“I’m sure that a couple of Fire Chiefs out there will latch onto that and claim their intent to stay as invited by council. … We now need that letter from (city attorney) Mike (Ormsby) that terminates the CCC agreement so that is not an option for them,” Collins wrote in a June 25 email to Sanders.

Feist, the city spokeswoman, told The Spokesman-Review that such a letter was never ultimately drafted.

“It concerns me that we might not be treating our fire district partners in a way that we would want to be treated. I don’t think that is honorable,” Councilwoman Candace Mumm said.

Spokane County Fire District 9 Chief Jack Cates resisted the transition to SREC for concerns similar to those raised by the Spokane City Council, and felt it was a good concept that was “being forced way too fast.” He called the CCC’s dissolution a “forced breach,” but District 9 ultimately joined the agency.

“I’ve thought all along that what they did was under the guise of contract law completely illegal … but they put us in a no-win situation,” Cates said.

Councilman Breean Beggs called the city’s actions a “complete sabotage of the CCC.”

“That’s why they’re trying to end the CCC – to make sure they can bully the city into going with SREC,” Beggs said.

Why the rush?

As SREC’s July 1 launch approached, Spokane public safety officials were scrambling to ensure the city would have enough employees to cover its dispatch needs.

“(Spokane Deputy Fire) Chief (Jay) Atwood and I have spent the past week trying to meet with the shifts and provide some semblance of guarantee for their livelihood and working conditions,” Schaeffer wrote to the City Council. “We are not in any position to be able to continue to operate a regional center, or even a single-agency center, as we have before.

“(Still), we owe the community the highest level of safety through the resources we have available, and will continue (pursuing) and maintaining that regardless of the theater in which we are left to operate.

To members of the Spokane City Council, the frantic lead-up to July 1 was unnecessary, and the start date arbitrary.

“This was a crash landing, and it put the citizens at risk. That’s what I was hearing from dispatchers. This was not a smooth transition, it was very abrupt,” Mumm said.

Markham noted that original plans had called for the agency to launch prior to July, but that the date had been pushed back as it waited on departments to decide if they would join. She noted that a lot of employees outside the city of Spokane were “waiting for resolution.”

“It was important for us to move forward,” she said.

The Spokane Firefighters Union feels the effort was a way to weaken the union.

“This was about union busting, because we were told up front that the system we were operating in was not sustainable, the costs were ‘out of market.’ What’s the measuring tool for that?” Cates asked. “It seemed to be working just fine … don’t remember any contentious debate at any of those CCC board meetings.”

Local 29 filed a grievance against the city in July for contracting with outside employees from SREC for union work after the city laid off dispatchers. A hearing was held on Oct. 17, but the issue remains unresolved.

“The timeline was what angered me most, just because all the stress and anxiety it caused folks,” Archer said. .

The city and Spokane Firefighters Union also are negotiating the impacts of a mutual aid agreement the city and SREC adopted in October.

Where things stand

SREC launched in July in the same space occupied by the CCC.

“If you walked in the room now, you wouldn’t know there’s a difference. We all still share the same space,” said Masjoan, the city fire dispatcher.

The city takes its own emergency calls, and SREC handles its own. If either side is overburdened, they help each other out.

“Both sides have been left shorthanded. That being said, the city side is doing very well. We’re finally staffing up,” Masjoan said.

The city has hired three new fire dispatchers and three new fire dispatch supervisors. They start on Monday.

Meanwhile, the financial impacts of SREC’s launch remain to be seen.

Though members were enticed with potential cost savings, they’re not seeing any yet. District 9, for example, was told it would pay about $152,000 after joining SREC. But its rate for 2020 will remain as it was under the city-led system – about $265,000, according to Cates.

“We’re in our infancy as a new organization, so we need to have some time on the books to see how things come together,” Markham said, adding the agency is “taking our time to make sure we’re doing it right.”

In the lead-up to SREC’s launch, the council received warnings that not joining SREC would cost the city more than $1 million in 2020. But a full financial analysis from SREC was unavailable. According to Beggs, the council still hasn’t seen the five-year capital spending plan he asked SREC for.

“If you’re really going to decrease response time and save everybody money, just lay that out for us,” Beggs said.

In his 2020 budget, Condon has budgeted an additional $600,000 for emergency communications services compared to the 2019 budget. As SREC’s member communities and departments see anticipated savings in future years, the city stands to lose out, Feist argues.

Just a few months into its operation, SREC is still a work in progress. The focus has been on hiring 911 call takers, law enforcement dispatchers and fire dispatchers, according to Markham.

The operational efficiencies have yet to be seen.

Markham acknowledged the emotional nature of the transition, but said “things are actually going really well for SREC.”

“I understand that people still have concerns and things they’re watching for, and I appreciate it because it makes us aware of what we need to focus on,” she said.

Mumm continues to pressure the city and SREC to come to a lease agreement for the new agency’s use of city building space and technology. City and SREC officials say negotiations are ongoing.

“I don’t think that’s a good business principle and I don’t think that’s a good government principle, and I think the city needs to be paid back,” Mumm said.

To Cates, it doesn’t matter what the agency is called, but everyone should be working together again.

“Everybody needs to be back together, and I don’t care what we call it and who’s administrating it,” he said.