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Fire-dispatch merger hearing slated

Proposal would end months of wrangling over proposal to combine with larger district


There's one more chance to sound off on the proposed fire dispatch merger.

Littleton City Council will hold a public hearing during its Oct. 17 meeting before making the final call on the off-again-on-again proposal to merge the city's fire dispatch service with South Metro Fire Rescue. The city initially shot down the proposal, only to have the city's fire partners — outside districts that contract with Littleton for fire protection — demand mediation to reconsider the proposal.

City council voted 6-1 at its Oct. 3 meeting on a pair of measures aimed at pursuing the dispatch merger under revised terms, including a new payment structure. Councilmember Doug Clark was the only holdout.

The city's fire partners — the Highlands Ranch Metro District and the Littleton Fire Protection District, which includes west Centennial, among other areas — said merging Littleton's city-maintained dispatched services with South Metro, a larger consolidated district covering a vast swath of the southeast metro area, would result in lower costs and better service. Under South Metro's proposal, dispatched calls would be billed at $58.46 per call, about $25 less per call than Littleton currently charges, resulting in a savings of about $400,000 per year for the city.

South Metro would also provide better conditions to dispatchers, the partners say, with an economy of scale that they say would allow for faster dispatch and more relief time for dispatchers on duty.

The city and the fire partners met with mediator John Hayes in September, who recommended that the city go ahead with the dispatch merger, but said the partners should pay South Metro directly for dispatch services, rather than using Littleton as a middleman for dispatch fees.

This has the benefit of reducing revenue that would push against the city's TABOR cap, said city attorney Steve Kemp.

“This gets Littleton off the hook on the question of what would happen if the partners failed to pay on time, too,” Kemp said, adding that the merger would also reduce the city's liability if there were problems with dispatch services.

However, the post-mediation negotiations include a new wrinkle: While South Metro's proposal previously said that it would absorb all of Littleton's full-time dispatchers, the larger district now says they only have room for six new dispatchers — whereas Littleton currently has nine, as well as several part-timers.

Kemp said if the merger went through, the city's dispatchers would need to apply through the normal job-application process for positions at South Metro.

“That's what virtually any employer would do to make sure they're not liable” for Littleton's hiring decisions, Kemp said.

Employees who didn't make the cut to join South Metro might be offered positions on the city's police dispatch team, Kemp said, and any left over might be offered other positions or an incentive package to leave.

Clark reiterated his opposition to the merger, saying the move was premature while the city is still working with consultants to study the possibility of a wholesale merger of the city's fire protection services with South Metro.

Clark said there's no hurry, considering the city's dispatch center is currently meeting its performance standards.

“We've still got 90 percent of calls going out in under a minute, which are the standards outlined in our partner contracts,” Clark said, adding that he sees this as a way for the firefighter's union to push the city toward a wholesale merger with South Metro.

“There was no mention of problems with dispatch by consultants or other city agencies or partners until after the council started talking about merging with South Metro.”

Councilmember Debbie Brinkman, who is the council's liaison with the fire partners, disagreed. She called the dispatch merger "an excellent option."

“We've had problems in the dispatch center for years,” Brinkman said. “I've been in meetings with staff and fire and heard about them, and we've never done anything about it.”

Brinkman said the dispatch center has suffered from short-staffing and tough conditions, and that a merger is a good option because it reduces the city's costs during a budget crunch, and fixes the dispatch problems without expensive upgrades.


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