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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane plans for fire-dispatch future without backup from new regional agency

City Council members are set to vote Monday on a $200,000 settlement with a woman injured falling on a buckled sidewalk in 2019.   (Christopher Anderson)

The Spokane Regional Emergency Communications agency and the city of Spokane will not renew an agreement that provides the city’s fire dispatchers backup when they are short-staffed.

Instead, the city will look to buttress its own staffing to avoid dipping below the minimum allowed levels during normal shifts.

“We do have a plan for continuity of service with that change,” Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer assured the City Council’s Public Safety and Community Health Committee on Monday.

Last month, the Spokane Regional Emergency Communications agency’s board voted to reject a proposed extension of its agreement with the city of Spokane, which provided the city with backup fire dispatch services when it is shorthanded.

The regional dispatch agency approved the agreement, and two prior extensions through Feb. 1, last year under the assumption that the city may eventually join its agency. The most recent iteration would have extended the agreement through June 1.

Instead, the Spokane City Council inserted funding in its 2021 budget last month to hire three additional fire dispatchers, bringing the total staffing to 11 dispatchers and signaling that it could continue ahead on its own.

The additional dispatch staffing does not necessarily mean the city will never join the regional agency.

The city has paid the regional agency a flat $57,600 monthly fee for the backup.

The city will save money by dropping the monthly payments, but will have to pay dispatchers overtime until it fills two vacancies on its fire dispatch crew.

The communications agency and the Spokane City Council have been at odds since the former’s inception, which replaced the former city-led Combined Communications Center when it opened in 2019.

The city of Spokane is the final notable holdout among local governments and public safety agencies, refusing to join the regional group until the City Council feels its questions about the operating cost and efficacy of the new agency are adequately answered. The Spokane Firefighters Union also has ardently resisted calls for the city to join SREC.

In the meantime, the city’s own fire dispatch crew has regularly been short-staffed because several staff members either were hired by the regional agency or were fired by former Mayor David Condon, who had advocated the city join the regional group but was rebuffed by the City Council.

Although they will be without the interlocal agreement, the regional agency and city officials are working on a deal that would continue to provide mutual aid during major emergencies. But it would not provide backup staffing for the city’s day-to-day shortages, Schaeffer said.

Despite the bureaucratic tension, agency and city employees still work in tandem to handle emergencies. Spokane Regional Emergency Communications fields 911 calls across Spokane County, but forward pertinent calls to the city’s fire dispatchers, who still are responsible for sending first responders to the scene of incidents inside the city.

“We will continue to be regional partners with the City of Spokane by answering 911 and Crime Check calls as well as maintaining the regional public safety radio system. SREC will also continue to support the City of Spokane during large scale events through a Mutual Aid understanding,” the agency wrote in a statement following its vote last month.