Back in May, the city of Spokane sent out layoff notices to 10 fire dispatch employees. While the City Council had fought against switching to the new Spokane Regional Emergency Communications Center — intended to combine fire and 911 dispatch systems countywide — the city argued that, since the rest of the county would be switching to the dispatch system, those dispatchers were no longer needed.
But now, the Spokane Fire Department has found itself short-staffed, without enough dispatchers to serve existing customers. For now, the city is temporarily contracting with SREC to provide extra dispatchers. City spokeswoman Marlene Feist says that shouldn't be seen as defying the council wishes.
"We need support with the workload," Feist says.
Instead, she says, more people quit than expected. Of the 18 fire dispatchers the city originally had, 12 left to get jobs with SREC, Feist says, and another plans to retire. The city needs eight fire dispatchers — and soon they'll only have five.
But several council members say that wasn't the only issue. They say the problem is that the city's stated premise — that all the other fire districts would be joining SREC — was flat-out false.
"Those fire districts never gave us written notice that they were leaving," Councilman Breean Beggs says.
In fact, he says, most of the Spokane County fire districts were contractually obligated to stick with the city's dispatch system until the end of the year. Jack Cates, fire chief at Fire District 9, says that he, at least, wanted to stick with the city's system. But now that the city has ousted over half of its dispatchers? Cates and the other fire districts don't have much of a choice but to switch away from the city's staffing-starved system.
"We didn't ask for this," Cates says. "It was forced upon us."
Beggs accuses the city administration of effectively manufacturing a crisis, putting the city in a breach of contract with the other fire districts.
"You don't lay off 10 employees before your main customers give you the required written notice, unless you want to cripple it," Beggs says.