After years of resistance from the firefighters union and the City Council, Spokane has joined the regional emergency communications system that answers every 911 call made in the county.
Spokane Regional Emergency Communications at 6 p.m. Monday absorbed the city of Spokane’s fire dispatch services. Emergency calls that had previously been answered by Spokane Fire Department’s separate dispatchers now are the sole responsibility of regional 911 communications staff.
As a result of the merger, Spokane will pay $151,000 a month to Spokane Regional Emergency Communications, which is funded by local governments, sales tax revenue and a state 911 excise tax.
The regional communications system has been a source of conflict at City Hall since its inception three years ago.
Mayor David Condon and his successor Nadine Woodward have lobbied hard for joining the organization, commonly referred to as SREC. The mayors have said joining forces with the regional entity would speed up response times and save money.
The Spokane Firefighters Union Local 29 has fought the merger, noting that its separate dispatchers had more extensive training and arguing that the status quo provided better service for city residents.
The Spokane City Council expressed its resistance to a merger through legislation, crafting a law in 2019 that required city employees to conduct dispatch services. The council last week voted 6-1 to amend that law and allow outside agencies to take on dispatch roles. Councilwoman Karen Stratton voted against the amendment.
Staffing shortages helped end the stalemate.
Randy Marler, president of the Spokane Firefighters Union, said five of the department’s 13 dispatchers were firefighters who were transferred after refusing to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Now, those firefighters are returning to their jobs.
“It essentially makes it impossible to staff our dispatch system,” Marler said.
Absorbing the city’s fire dispatch won’t be easy for Spokane Regional Emergency Communications. The agency has 105 employees, but it’s short-handed by about 25.
That lack of manpower is forcing the 911 call center to delegate some of its duties to the Spokane Police Department’s dispatchers.
During a Friday news conference, Spokane Police Department Assistant Chief Justin Lundgren said the change will cause some lower priority 911 calls to be placed on hold, but response times for critical emergencies won’t be affected. The Spokane Police Department is hiring eight dispatchers to accommodate its expanded workload.
Spokane fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said he believes the merger with Spokane Regional Emergency Communications will have “so many benefits, it’s ridiculous.”
Schaeffer said the shift will improve response times. Regional 911 communications staff had previously transferred calls to the fire department’s dispatchers, who in turn coordinated emergency responses with firefighters.
“The faster that we can get resources to a fire, the more survivability somebody has if they’re trapped,” Schaeffer said. “Those 20 or 30 seconds may be a life-and-death situation to some people.”
Marler said he understands the benefits of a regional communications system, but believes the fire department’s system was better.
“It is what it is,” he said. “Moving over there is out of our control.”
Stratton said she wants to make sure response times don’t worsen as a result of the change.
“Peoples’ lives are at stake,” she said.
As part of agreeing to join Spokane Regional Emergency Communications, the City Council is requiring the agency to provide call recordings for quality control review. The city also is requesting two seats on SREC’s board.
As part of the merger, five fire dispatchers have been offered $15,000 in severance, as well as other benefits.
Dispatchers also have been offered jobs with Spokane Regional Emergency Communications and the Spokane Police Department’s dispatch unit.
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