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

‘Writing is on the wall’: Spokane fire dispatchers face uncertain future as new labor deal paves way for regional 911 system integration

Chris Drohan, fire communications officer, works in the fire dispatch area at the new Spokane Regional Emergency Center (SREC), on Thursday, July 18, 2019 at 1620 N. Rebecca Street in Spokane, WA. Last year, 553,495 calls were received between 911, Crime Check, law enforcement, fire and medical response agencies.    (Libby Kamrowski/The Spokesman-Review)

A new labor agreement between the city of Spokane and the Spokane firefighters union paves the way for the city to join its fire dispatch services with the region’s emergency communications center.

The agreement with Local 29, approved Monday by the Spokane City Council, gives the city the green light to commence negotiations that would move all fire dispatch functions to Spokane Regional Emergency Communications (SREC).

It’s unclear whether city fire dispatchers’ jobs would be available for them at SREC or elsewhere at the city if the move takes place.

The relationship between the Spokane Fire Department’s dispatchers and the region’s emergency communications center has been contentious even before SREC opened in 2019.

SREC was launched with the goal of streamlining Spokane County’s emergency communications by integrating several agencies under one roof.

Spokane fire dispatchers’ resistance to the change dates back to the term of Mayor David Condon, whose administration oversaw 10 fire dispatcher layoffs in May 2019 and effectively forced the city at the time to rely on SREC.

Later that year, the Spokane City Council passed an ordinance requiring city police and firefighters to work only with city dispatchers.

Mayor Nadine Woodward and her administration have worked toward an arrangement to consolidate services with SREC since 2020 in attending monthly meetings of the SREC board, said city spokesman Brian Coddington. Coddington said the city administration believes streamlining with SREC can save money while providing equal or greater levels of service.

The move would take place no sooner than Jan. 1 as per the Local 29 contract, but it’s not a done deal.

The city and SREC have to first negotiate an acceptable agreement for moving dispatch services. Other holding points include ensuring acceptable standards of service and dispatch times, membership on the SREC governing board and the use of “best efforts” to transfer city dispatchers affected by the move, according to the contract.

The City Council will also have to either repeal or amend the ordinance passed in 2019 that dictates which dispatchers city police and fire are allowed to work with, said Council President Breean Beggs.

A number of council members, past and present, have long desired not only for the city to have a presence on SREC’s governing board, but also to evaluate the financial impacts of integration and the effect on service times compared to today’s system, said Councilwoman Karen Stratton.

“I think it’s been hard on everybody because this is a good contract for Local 29,” Stratton said, “but it’s at the extent of 13 people now who have to decide, ‘Am I going to go work for SREC?’ which, they have fundamental, ethical problems regarding response times, how this organization is managed, and have had very little discussion with anybody about their futures.”

SREC representatives declined to comment, citing how negotiations with the city have not yet begun.

The new agreement with Local 29, which represents around 320 Spokane firefighters, was one of two labor contracts approved Monday by the City Council. The council also authorized a new one-year deal with the Spokane Police Guild effective retroactively through 2022.

Outside of a 5.5% wage increase for all union job classifications, the police contract is largely a one-year extension of the Guild’s previous four-year deal.

Given how Spokane officials were also negotiating deals this year with Local 29 and Local 270, the city’s largest union that represents around 1,100 workers in areas including street maintenance, trash collection and water utility operations, Spokane Police Guild President Dave Dunkin said Monday the police union was willing to proceed with the one-year pact ahead of further negotiations toward a multiyear contract with additional considerations.

Provisions to make way for dispatch consolidation with SREC were only some of the terms included in the new Local 29 contract.

The four-year deal, effective retroactively from Jan. 1, 2020, to Dec. 31, 2024, provides for a 3.8% average annual wage increase and also sets up a new 69-firefighter minimum daily staffing level.

“We are nowhere near the industry standard, currently, for what we feel like staffing should be. That’s a discussion for another day,” Local 29 President Randy Marler said Friday, “but at the very least, we wanted to backstop where we currently are so that we don’t have to educate new elected leaders into understanding that we’re not in a position to reduce staffing even more than where we currently are.”

In a statement announcing the new union deals, Woodward said the new police and fire contracts “are good deals for the people the City serves and for our public safety employees who answer the call for help every day.”

The Spokane Fire Department has 13 fire dispatchers, Marler and Stratton said. Five of them are firefighters who were reassigned to nonmedical jobs after failing to comply with Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

The new labor contract provides the dispatchers a number of benefits if the move to SREC does take place. These benefits, effective when the decision is made to move to SREC, include allowing employees to cash out 100% of accrued leave if they move to SREC or other city employment and a one-time stipend of at least $15,000, each.

Marler said Local 29 looked into labor laws and legal recourse to stop the move from taking place.

“Basically, the city made it clear that the city is getting out of the dispatch business,” Marler said. “There wasn’t much of a choice on whether we stayed in the system or didn’t. What we had the choice in is having a say in what happens to our members in what happens once the city makes that decision.”

Coddington said, “There’s a real pride of ownership of the dispatch work that’s done. The contract acknowledges that and has a consideration for dispatchers who would be moving over or displaced by the partnership with SREC.”

While the City Council on Monday approved the Police Guild contract unanimously, the Local 29 deal was passed with a 5-1 vote, with Stratton opposed. Councilwoman Lori Kinnear was absent.

“In my opinion, the damage has been done,” Stratton said Monday. “We currently have 13 Spokane Fire Department dispatchers who feel disregarded and unappreciated. Simply put, they don’t know what the future holds.”

Kelly Thomas, who had started working for Spokane fire dispatch in 2009, was one of the 10 dispatchers laid off in 2019. All of them, she said, were offered jobs with SREC soon after they were let go.

Thomas declined, saying she managed to regain her position after three more dispatchers still employed by the city ended up leaving for the regional center. She stayed on until resigning in June, saying that, since the “SREC split,” she was “growing weary of the lack of management.”

The emergence of SREC saw Thomas, who is now Stratton’s legislative assistant, working increased overtime as a supervisor for the system between training, staffing, scheduling and the dispatch work.

Ashleigh Siegfried, a fire communications specialist who has worked for the city’s dispatch system for nearly two years, said she is now one of the more senior-most civilian dispatchers on the team in part because of the turnover over the last few years.

She has her reservations about moving to SREC, however, saying she does not believe the agency’s staffing levels are up to par and has concerns about potentially starting at the bottom of the seniority list if a lateral hire isn’t possible.

“I think that Local 29 was kind of in a position where they couldn’t win. The fight was over for this,” Siegfried said, “and I think that’s how the Local sees it and the City Council is able to see the writing is on the wall there too.

“I am already coming from a place that’s extremely short-staffed,” she added, “and, if I’m going to have to make the choice, I don’t really want to go into that again.”