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

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 departments with the area’s emergency communications center.

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

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

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

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

Resistance by Spokane fire dispatchers to change dates back to the tenure 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 the RECS.

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

Mayor Nadine Woodward and her administration have been working on an arrangement to consolidate services with the SREC since 2020 by attending monthly meetings of the SREC board of directors, city spokesperson Brian Coddington said. Coddington said the city administration believes streamlining with SREC can save money while providing equal or better levels of service.

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

The City and SREC must first negotiate an acceptable agreement for move dispatch services. Other stopping points include ensuring acceptable service standards and shipping times, joining the SREC Board of Directors, and using “best efforts” to transfer affected city dispatchers. by the move, according to the contract.

The city council will also have to repeal or change the ordinance passed in 2019 that dictates which dispatchers the city’s police and fire departments are allowed to work with, council chairman Breean Beggs said.

A number of Board members, past and present, have long wanted not only to have the City present on the SREC Board of Directors, but also to assess the financial impacts of integration and the effect on than the current system,” said Councilor Karen Straton.

“I think it’s been difficult for everyone because it’s a good contract for Local 29,” Stratton said, “but it’s up to 13 people now who have to decide, ‘Is- am I going to go to work for SREC?’ which, they have fundamental ethical issues regarding response times, the way this organization is run, and have had very little discussion with anyone about their future.

SREC representatives declined to comment, citing the fact that negotiations with the city have yet to begin.

The new agreement with Local 29, which represents about 320 Spokane firefighters, was one of two employment contracts approved Monday by the city council. The board also authorized a new one-year agreement with the Spokane Police Guild retroactive to 2022.

Apart from 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.

Since Spokane officials also negotiated agreements this year with Locals 29 and 270, the city’s largest union which represents about 1,100 workers in areas such as street maintenance, garbage collection and water utility operations, Spokane Police Guild President Dave Dunkin, the police union said Monday. was prepared to continue with the one-year pact before further negotiations for a multi-year contract with additional considerations.

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

The four-year agreement, effective retroactively from January 1, 2020 to December 31, 2024, provides for an average annual salary increase of 3.8% and also establishes a new minimum daily staffing level of 69 firefighters.

“We are far from the industry standard, currently, for what we think 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 support where we are now so we don’t have to educate new people. elected leaders so that they understand that we are not able to downsize even more than where we are now.

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

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

The new employment contract offers dispatchers a number of advantages if the switch to SREC takes 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 another city job and a one-time allowance of at least $15,000 each.

Marler said Local 29 reviewed labor laws and legal remedies to prevent the move.

“Basically, the city has made it clear that it’s getting out of the dispatch business,” Marler said. “We didn’t really have a choice whether to stay in the system or not. What we had a choice is to have a say in what happens to our members in what happens once the city makes that decision.

Coddington said: “There is a real pride in ownership of the dispatch work that is being done. The contract recognizes this and takes into account dispatchers who would be displaced or displaced by the partnership with the SREC.

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

“In my view, the damage has been done,” Stratton said Monday. “We currently have 13 Spokane Fire Department dispatchers who feel ignored and unappreciated. In other words, they don’t know what the future holds for them.

Kelly Thomas, who started working for Spokane Fire Dispatch in 2009, was one of 10 dispatchers fired in 2019. All of them, she said, were offered jobs at SREC soon after. have been fired.

Thomas declined, saying she managed to get her job back after three other dispatchers still employed by the city ended up leaving for the regional center. She remained until her resignation in June, saying that since the “split of the SREC” she was “tired of the lack of management”.

The emergence of the SREC has seen Thomas, who is now Stratton’s legislative assistant, increasingly work overtime as a system supervisor between training, staffing, planning and 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 most experienced civilian dispatchers on the team, in part because of turnover of recent years.

She has reservations about the move to SREC, however, saying she doesn’t think the agency’s workforce is up to snuff and fears she’ll potentially start at the bottom of the seniority list if a lateral hire isn’t up to par. is not possible.

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

“I already come from a place that’s understaffed,” she added, “and, if I have to make a choice, I don’t really want to go back.”

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