Wash. city relies on new regional center after dispatchers are laid off, quit
The city has lost so many fire dispatchers that it can no longer fully provide fire dispatch services to itself or its neighbors
By Adam Shanks
The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash.
SPOKANE, Wash. — Despite orders from the Spokane City Council to maintain an independent dispatch crew for firefighters, the city is now relying on a new regional system to handle emergency calls.
As it prepares for the rest of the county to move forward with a new regional 911 dispatch system, the city has lost so many fire dispatchers that it can no longer fully provide fire dispatch services to itself or its neighbors.
The city is now relying on Spokane Regional Emergency Communications – which the City Council explicitly took action last month to prevent the city from joining – to provide fire dispatch services because so many of the city’s dispatchers have been laid off or left.
It is just the latest development in what has been a monthslong standoff between the administration and City Council over whether or not to join the new system. Proponents, including Mayor David Condon, argue it will offer better service and be more efficient than the city’s current system, but council members have pressed for more information before joining.
The dispatcher shortage ties back to the city’s decision in May to lay off 10 fire dispatchers, anticipating that several of the fire districts it provides dispatch services for would leave and join the new regional system that launched July 1.
Under the terms of a five-year agreement that expires at the end of 2021, the city provides fire dispatch services to 10 Spokane County Fire Districtsand the cities of Airway Heights, Cheney and Medical Lake.
Expecting member agencies to abandon it July 1, the city argued it would require only eight dispatchers moving forward.
But other fire dispatchers have also fled, in addition to the 10 who were laid off, leaving the city short of what it needs to provide adequate fire dispatching services on its own.
That has forced the city to rely on the new regional system – which now employs many of the dispatchers the city just fired – for fire dispatch services. The change has not negatively impacted the city’s ability to respond to emergencies, according to City Administrator Theresa Sanders.
“At the end of the day, a group of fire dispatchers left work on Friday came back on Monday and were doing essentially the same job,” Sanders said.
One of the five remaining city fire dispatchers, Kelly Masjoan, detailed the situation in an email to the City Council on Friday morning.
“It has been a surreal experience, as we are working in the same room with our former colleagues, except now have different employers. Only a few of us remain in the SFD uniform now, and new SREC signs have gone up on office doors,” Masjoan wrote.
The City Council voted unanimously last month against joining the regional dispatch center.
Councilman Breean Beggs argues that, despite the July 1 target date for consolidation, the other fire districts are contractually obligated to remain with the city at least through the end of the year.
But by laying off 10 of its dispatchers and losing several more by the employees’ own choice, Beggs says the city is now incapable of providing dispatch services to its neighbors – therefore violating the agreement and potentially allowing the other departments to join the new regional system.
“It’s a completely self-inflicted wound and chaos that the city administration created,” Beggs said.
Councilwoman Karen Stratton called it “despicable.”
“It’s bullying, it’s pushing us up against a wall saying ‘Here you go, this is what you get for not working with us,’” Stratton said.
The agreement between the city of Spokane and the other districts requires that there be at least three personnel – including at least two dispatchers and one shift supervisor – assigned to the city-led system, 24 hours per day.
Now, the towns signed on with the city “can arguably cancel their contract early, because we’re not providing the services because our administration laid off people without having notice that we didn’t have customers,” Beggs said.
On July 2, the policy board that governs the city’s shared system signed a resolution alleging a breach of contract by the city of Spokane due to the recent staffing reduction. Per the terms of the agreement, member districts now have 90 days to evaluate their participation in the group and can choose to leave.
“There’s nothing necessarily adversarial about this,” said Brian Snure, an attorney representing the policy board. “It was procedural.”
Each member of the agreement will have to make their own decision on the future of their dispatch services, Snure said.
The city administration disagrees with the council’s assertion that the other districts are bound by the agreement to use the city’s services through the end of the year.
Expecting that the other districts could and would leave the city’s system, Condon argued that laying off the city’s dispatchers was not only necessary but also in their own interest. Otherwise, SREC would have filled the open positions from elsewhere, he said.
“We have been very proactive for the betterment of the individual,” Condon said.
With the sudden dearth of dispatchers, the city is now relying on the new regional system to provide fire dispatch services. The cost of using the new system in this capacity remains unclear, but city officials acknowledge that it will be greater than what the city had budgeted for.
The council’s objection to the regionwide system has centered around two concerns. First, its members have asked for more detail on the purported financial and operational benefits of the regional center.
“We need to know the financials, which they don’t know yet. It’s not that they’re hiding them from us. They don’t know,” Beggs said.
The city acknowledges that the financial details are not completely ironed out, but Sanders said work is continuing on a five-year capital plan and operational model that will help illuminate what the long-term financial picture of participating in a regional dispatch center will mean for the city.
Members have also sought assurances that the city’s dispatchers would be taken care of in new roles at the communications center.
“Unless you can show us that our employees are going to be fully whole, including raises, and you can show us that we really will have cost savings – money savings for the city – and that we’re going to get these improvements, why would we change? Our system works pretty darn well as it is,” Beggs said.
Stratton suggested that the council could hire its own attorney to determine its next steps.
©2019 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.)