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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane has 3 months to join regional 911 communications system – or make other plans

A dispatcher works at Spokane Regional Emergency Communications.  (Ben Tobin/Courtesy of Spokane Regional Emergency Communications)

The city of Spokane has until the end of the summer to fully join the regional dispatch service for 911 calls, or else the Spokane Police and Fire departments may need to establish their own answering service.

The board overseeing Spokane Regional Emergency Communications again extended the invitation for the city to become fully fledged members of the half-decade-old agency in an April letter to Spokane Mayor Lisa Brown.

The invitation marks the latest iteration of the yearslong back and forth between SREC and the city of Spokane, a debate that’s stretched through three mayoral administrations.

Placing regional 911 operators and dispatchers under one roof is intended to improve interagency coordination for emergency responses, cut down on delays from transferring calls and bring cost savings for member agencies – an issue Brown must weigh as the city faces a $50 million budget deficit.

Lori Markham, executive director of SREC, said this invitation is slightly different than the past few attempts. The agency needs to have an answer after years of the city deliberating joining, so Markham’s team and the board can move forward with plans for SREC’s future.

At present, SREC answers all 911 calls in the region, but it forwards calls for police services within city limits to the city’s own dispatchers. Calls necessitating a response from Spokane Fire are dispatched by the agency, after the department joined SREC in 2022.

Brown responded to the invitation via letter last month, asking to have until Aug. 24 to conduct a study of the financial implications of both options and to make a final decision. She raised concerns over what she views as a lack of adequate representation for the city on SREC’s governance board, unnecessary charges for member agencies and the lack of good stewardship of taxpayers’ money.

SREC is funded through a combination of membership fees, sales tax revenue and a state 911 excise tax. One of Brown’s central complaints is rooted in the idea the city is paying more than its fair share for the services SREC would provide if the police department were to join.

Brown wrote nearly half of the tax revenue SREC receives is generated within city limits, therefore the “hefty user fees” the agency charges “function as a second tax on City residents.”

The 20 fire departments and police agencies that rely on SREC for services are charged monthly user fees proportional to their use. The city paid around $1.8 million in user fees to the agency last year for Spokane Fire dispatch services, and will need to pay more than $2.4 million in 2024 after its monthly fee was increased by the board.

“This is unacceptable under any circumstance and particularly now considering the City’s current budget reality,” Brown wrote in her response.

Brown points to the rate increase for the Spokane Fire Department as another example of the city overpaying for services, on top of the $3 million in 911 excise tax and $7.5 million in sales tax generated in the city, according to the letter.

“Based on the City’s analysis, SREC could eliminate user fees and still achieve a balanced budget,” Brown wrote.

Markham noted all 20 member agencies of SREC have agreed not to take any discounts or decreases in user fees to ensure money is being saved to put toward a new facility for call operators and dispatchers in the coming years. She said the current location is cramped, outdated and in a subpar location.

“We’ve done as much as we can do to try to accommodate the space in here,” Markham said. “Unfortunately, we continue to grow, the call volume in Spokane County continues to grow, so the need is ever changing.”

Brown said she’s also not comfortable with SREC’s request that the city help cover half of the roughly $5 million in costs associated with developing a regionally integrated Computer Aided Dispatch system, regardless of whether the police department was to join.

“It is our understanding that SREC could absorb the cost for SPD’s CAD integration considering its revenue and reserves,” Brown wrote, citing city analytics that say SREC’s reserves have grown to over $33 million since the agency was founded in 2018.

Cody Rohrbach, longtime chief of Spokane County Fire District 3 and chair of the board overseeing SREC, said the figures he has access to show the agency’s reserves are at around $24 million, with $5 million designated toward ongoing operating costs and the remaining balance set aside for a new facility.

The city verbally committed to covering half of the costs of the transition to a new system when it began two years ago, which led to the ask, Rohrbach said.

“What the SREC board is asking for, is for the city to pay an equitable portion based on their utilization of the CAD system,” Rohrbach said. “Similar to what our 20 member agencies have already contributed.”

A new CAD system would allow all regional agencies to have access to the same information, coordinate responses and communicate better than using the multitude of systems regional police and fire departments have used in the past, or the separate fire and police systems SREC uses. Markham said her tech experts are setting up the hardware infrastructure and software preparations needed for a launch in late 2025.

“We’ve tried to manage our funding very responsibly, so that we are doing what we need to do to get the job done,” Markham said, regarding the agency’s reserves. “But anything that’s left over, we’re not taking advantage of that. We’re being smart about it.”

Brown said she’d also like the city to have more say over how the agency is run if the police department were to join SREC, due to the majority of tax revenue and calls to the agency coming from within city limits.

She said over half of SREC’s calls involving a fire response fall under the Spokane fire’s jurisdiction, and more than half of calls for law enforcement would need a Spokane Police Department response if the agency were to join.

The city holds two seats on SREC’s 10-member board, which is not proportional with the city’s call volume and would-be dependency on the agency, Brown said.

Brown’s concerns would remain even if the city was allotted another seat on the board, due to the 70% majority needed to pass any policy changes. She said she would like to see the governing policies amended to lower that bar to a 60% majority.

“The City is committed to enhancing public safety and regional collaboration,” Brown wrote. “I look forward to resolving these concerns and providing the SREC Board a meaningful response quickly and amicably.”

Detective Dave Dunkin, president of the union representing Spokane’s officers and sergeants, has the same concerns as Brown with representation on the board.

He said the city would need “absolute say” on matters regarding calls for city services at SREC for him to endorse the switch.

He’s also concerned the switch could lead to a heavier workload for officers in the field.

Dunkin said the department’s dispatchers are an integral part of the team and do a lot of preliminary and post work regarding calls for service, which include establishing identities, pulling past and present cases related to the call, and forwarding that on to responding officers.

That work may fall on the sergeants out in the field if the department were to join SREC, he said.

“All officers are very concerned about the level of service SREC provides, the poor level of service,” Dunkin said.

SREC Deputy Director Kim Arredondo said SREC dispatchers are trained to do all of the same research to inform responding officers as the city’s internal team. She spent 17 years as a dispatcher and dispatch supervisor for the department before joining SREC in 2020.

Markham noted they have not touched base with the department about what service would look like, and said all seven regional law enforcement agencies have been satisfied with the service they receive.

“Our purpose is to serve our first responders and to serve the public,” Markham said.

“So if there’s something that they don’t like that we’re doing, or something that they wish we were doing different, they just have to come and talk to us, and we’ll make adjustments.”

If Brown decides not to have the police force join the agency, the city will need to establish its own service to take 911 calls and dispatch police and fire services within city limits amid a $50 million budget deficit. The city has long sought to diverge some of the tax funding that goes to SREC to fund its own dispatch services.

Markham said her team and the governing board need to properly plan for SREC’s future, which hinges on whether the city joins completely. They’ll need to determine what a new facility would need to look like, as well as staffing and tech needs.

“It’s unfortunate that we are still here five years after going live, but that’s where we’re at,” Markham said. “Unfortunately, we can’t wait any longer to move forward.”

Brown is not the first city leader to question SREC. The regional communications system has been a source of conflict at City Hall since its inception six years ago.

Former Mayor David Condon and his successor, Nadine Woodward, lobbied hard for joining the organization. The mayors said joining forces with the regional entity would speed up response times and save money, but ran into opposition among local firefighters and the Spokane City Council.

The Spokane Firefighters Union Local 29 initially fought the merger, noting that its separate dispatchers had more extensive training and arguing that the status quo provided better service for city residents. Staffing shortages helped end the stalemate, as reported by The Spokesman-Review.

The council expressed its resistance to a merger through legislation, crafting a law in 2019 that required city employees to conduct dispatch services. The law was later amended to allow outside agencies to take on dispatch roles.

Local 29 President Randy Marler said his concerns over the quality of service at SREC and whether it’s cost-effective for the city to remain post-transition.

Marler said firefighters are not always receiving all of the necessary information they need when responding to calls, particularly those for which a police response is also warranted. He questioned whether a new CAD system would really improve the communication and coordination in the region.

He added that it has been difficult for the union to obtain good data from the agency.

Rohrbach said the appeal of a regional 911 communications system has been clear to him since SREC’s inception.

It ensures agencies can coordinate and better respond to disasters or incidents needing multiple law enforcement officers or firefighters.

He and Markham both pointed to the Oregon Road and Gray fires last fall as an example of when regional coordination is important; firefighters and law enforcement officers across the county scrambled into action to ensure Medical Lake and Elk residents were safe.

“If you’re a homeowner, or an individual having an emergency, you really don’t care what color the vehicle is, or what agency they represent,” Rohrbach said. “You just want that emergency mitigated as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

“It’s really the mantra that we’re better together,” he added.