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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Union, 911 dispatch center clash over change in fire dispatch

Spokane Fire Department firefighters work to bring a fire under control in this file photo. City fire dispatchers are at odds with a new regional emergency dispatch system.  (COLIN MULVANY)

The union representing city of Spokane fire dispatchers is once again at odds with leaders of the county’s new 911 dispatch center.

The dispatch center, Spokane Regional Emergency Communications, or SREC, switched to a new computer system last week that limits the role of city fire dispatchers in the emergency response process.

The union that represents the dispatchers quickly cried foul, claiming it was notified just hours prior to an abrupt transition in technology that has already put the public at risk.

Tim Archer, president of the firefighters union, said he was notified of last Thursday’s change on Wednesday afternoon by Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer. The city’s fire dispatchers were emailed instructions on the new system switch three hours before it was implemented, he said.

“They’ve weaponized time to engineer destruction,” Archer said.

The system update had been part of the plan since before SREC launched in 2019.

“The few concerns that have been brought to our attention have been addressed,” said SREC spokesman Patrick Erickson. “Any issues that pop up allow us identify and learn from potential problems and correct them.”

SREC formed with the goal of integrating all of the county’s emergency response agencies into a single, regional dispatch system. Its proponents argued the new system could leverage the agencies’ combined resources and create a dispatch center that was better staffed, more cost efficient, and up to date on the latest technology.

A central component of SREC’s plan was to change the way 911 calls are handled by implementing a new computer-aided dispatch system.

Prior to last week, a call was fielded by a 911 call taker, who would ask for basic information about the emergency and forward the call to a dispatcher. The dispatcher would then ask the caller questions and send first responders to the scene.

Now, with the new system activated, the 911 call-taker enters relevant details from the caller into the emergency medical dispatch program. The dispatcher can view the information and send first responders to the scene, but does not speak directly with the caller.

By not having to reroute the call, SREC believes this system will improve response times.

The city’s fire dispatchers argue the efficiency gained under the new system causes a detriment in service quality, as they are trained to ask the caller medical questions and relay information directly to first responders.

In a statement last week, SREC officials said its 911 call takers “went through months of extensive training” and are certified to operate the new system.

But there’s a benefit to having fire dispatchers getting real-time information directly from the caller, Archer argued. He provides an example of crews dispatched at full speed to a person choking. While en route, the dispatcher could learn that the person coughed up the food is now breathing fine, so the dispatcher tells first responders to slow their roll.

The inverse is also true, Archer said. Dispatchers can react quickly to a call that escalates in seriousness.

The union took to its Facebook page last week, pleading with city residents to contact local officials to voice opposition to the changes.

That SREC transitioned to the new system did not shock the union, Archer said, but it expected the city to be exempted.

“We knew they were going to do this. … I told them months ago, hey, that’s fine, just don’t touch city calls. Our Spokane citizens pay for this,” Archer said.

SREC has been controversial since its inception. The city of Spokane was prohibited from joining SREC by the Spokane City Council, which demanded clear proof of the new dispatch center’s benefits. The council also questioned the superiority of SREC over the previous regional agency, the Combined Communications Center, which the city led and also counted numerous regional agencies among its partners.

More than a year after SREC’s launch, the city is the last major holdout – the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, Spokane Valley Fire, and nine county fire districts have agreed to use SREC for emergency dispatch.

The Spokane City Council’s action was at odds with former Mayor David Condon, who supported SREC’s formation and even laid off several city dispatchers to enable their transition to the new dispatch center.

The city is down to six fire dispatchers, one of whom is on leave, according to Archer. When it is short-staffed, it contracts out to SREC for dispatch services.

Even though the City Council has committed to funding city dispatchers, Archer said the city has failed to bring on new dispatchers and adequately staff the operation. Instead, the city “has crippled this dog, and now they’re saying ‘well let’s just put it down.’ ”

The union filed grievances against the city for contracting out union work to an outside agency, SREC, and for failing to negotiate the consequences of SREC’s operations.

The two parties were in mediation, Archer said, which deteriorated last month.