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Fire dispatch merger may happen after all

Council votes to revisit issue on recommendation of mediator


The plot has thickened in the on-again-off-again relationship between the city of Littleton and the proposed merger of the city's fire dispatch services with those of South Metro Fire District, after city council voted 5-2 on Sept. 19 to accept the recommendation of a mediator to draw up new terms for such a merger.

While council is still free to reject new terms as drafted by City Attorney Stephen Kemp, the move makes a dispatch merger considerably more likely. Council did not set a timetable for the new proposal.
Councilmembers Peggy Cole and Doug Clark cast the dissenting votes.
The mediation was at the behest of the city's two fire partners, Highlands Ranch Metro District and Littleton Fire Protection District, which lie outside the city's boundaries but contract with Littleton for fire protection services.
The fire partners were left feeling jilted after the city rejected the merger in June, saying dismantling the city's fire dispatch services and contracting with South Metro, a large consolidated district, to send out trucks to respond to emergencies would save money and provide a better service to residents.
The fire partners issued an ultimatum in August, saying that if the city didn't provide them with a satisfactory outcome, they would sever ties with the city and contract with South Metro.
The partners agreed to mediation with John Hayes, a Denver attorney, in a process that examined each party's stance and issued a non-binding set of recommendations that all parties were free to take or leave.

Aiming to improve service

Hayes' report recommended that the city take a leap of faith and merge dispatch services with South Metro, but that South Metro should bill the city and the two fire partners separately for calls dispatched.

The separate billing proposal has an added benefit in that it removes Littleton as a middleman in the payment process, thus reducing the city's annual revenue accrual, easing the burden on the city's TABOR cap and freeing up space in the budget for other projects, Kemp said.

According to documents prepared by the city, Littleton's current fire dispatch center bills the city $83.86 per call. Under South Metro's offer, the city and the fire partners would be billed $58.46 per call, which, multiplied by the average number of calls the dispatch center handles in a year, works out to an annual savings of about $400,000. The three entities each make up roughly a third of the annual call volume, with the Littleton Fire Protection District — which serves west Centennial and parts of unincorporated Jefferson and Douglas counties — topping the list at a rate of about 6,000 calls a year.

The city's data show that call volume is steadily increasing each year, and the fire partners say South Metro's economies of scale make them better equipped to handle the increasing demand.

While Littleton's fire dispatch room normally utilizes two dispatchers — one to answer calls and one to dispatch trucks — South Metro's dispatch room may have a half-dozen or more dispatchers on at one time, working on calls from a vast swath of the southeast metro area.

South Metro already serves Parker, Castle Pines, Lone Tree, Greenwood Village and much of Centennial, among other areas.

While Littleton's fire dispatch center is currently meeting its response time goals, with more than 90 percent of calls received being dispatched in under a minute, the fire partners still feel that South Metro can provide a higher level of service and provide better conditions to dispatchers, Kemp said. He added that while in the past fire departments were largely insulated from lawsuits filed by individuals, in recent years courts have increasingly allowed the practice. If something were to go wrong with a call, the city could be opening itself up to litigation if someone were to allege that the city had been negligent by failing to merge with a better-equipped dispatch center, Kemp said.

Several city councilmembers found the arguments persuasive.

“It's a mounting of factors that say it's time to reduce our risk, reduce our cost, and increase safety for our citizens,” Councilmember Bill Hopping said. “We have to look at the TABOR cap this frees up. This gives us the ability to pave roads so somebody doesn't hit a pothole and hit their chin on the steering wheel and need that fire call in the first place.”

Mayor Pro Tem Debbie Brinkman said she's grateful the city's dispatchers have been hitting their turnaround-time goals considering the conditions they work in.

“Considering the pressure under which they're working, with the confined space, the stress level, and sitting in one chair for 12 hours at a stretch with barely something to eat, I give them gold medals for serving this community at the level they are,” said Brinkman, who is also the liaison between council and the fire partners. “For us to continue to expect them to do that is a complete and total disservice to our employees and citizens. I'm not going to allow this to continue with my vote.”

Mayor Bruce Beckman and Councilmember Jerry Valdes both voted against the merger in June, but voted in favor of the new proposal. Valdes said the liability concerns and increased services under South Metro won him over.

“It sounds like there could be holes in our current service,” Valdes said. “I'm concerned for the people who need those services. It's in the best interest of the citizens of Littleton that we contract with South Metro.”

Move called 'premature'

Cole and Clark remained steadfast in their opposition.

Clark called the dispatch merger premature while the city is still in the midst of a longer study into the possibility of a wholesale merger of the city's fire services and partnerships into a consolidated district.

“Once we get rid of our dispatch center, it'll be difficult or impossible to get it back,” Clark said. “It removes a great many alternatives we have while that's in process. There's not really a rush on this, other than the fact that the partners have a rush on this. This is ill conceived and premature, and we're boxing the city and citizens into some very limited options in the future.”

Cole said the cost savings argument didn't sway her.

“If we follow the cost logic, it seems we ought to just ask Littleton to be annexed to some other city and reduce cost all kinds of ways,” Cole said. “We should put this issue on hold for six months to give it a chance to stabilize. The opportunity to merge isn't going away.”

The city's fire partners hailed the council's decision, with an awareness that the measure isn't settled yet.

“This is a very preliminary move,” said Littleton Fire Rescue Chief Chris Armstrong, who is also chief of the Littleton Fire Protection District. “Council will still have a lot of questions. I don't know what's going to happen, but them reconsidering and bringing the merger proposal back is something positive.”


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