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Change Rejected In Dispatching For Fire, Ambulance Districts In St. Louis County

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(Updated 9:55 p.m. Wed., March 12)

The commission currently overseeing fire dispatching for most of St. Louis County has rejected a move by some fire districts to shift operations to St. Louis County's new emergency center.

Three protection or ambulance districts on the commission for the Central County Emergency 911 had sought the change. But the districts' request appears to be dead, for now, because four votes were needed on the panel before any talks with the county could move forward. 

The commission deadlocked at 3-3 Wednesday night.

Jane Cunningham, a member of the Monarch Fire Board and a critic of the shift, said after the meeting that the commission remains open to any proposal from the county.  But she reaffirmed her belief that changing the current arrangement "doesn't make sense'' and would waste taxpayers' money.

County officials have said they were simply responding to the districts' request and didn't want to take over dispatching services.

Cunningham had brought up the issue at Tuesday night’s County Council meeting. She accused the county of “moving forward to duplicate services that already exist.” 

"There has been heavy pressure on the Central County board to adopt a strange resolution agreeing to go into talks with the county about the county providing the same services as Central County,'' she told the County Council. "We are always willing to discuss ideas, but this forced agreement to talk is bizarre."

County Executive Charlie Dooley said the county had not instigated any dispatching changes and was simply looking into a request made by some fire and ambulance boards.

Too Small DO NOT USE Jane Cunningham
Credit Provided
Jane Cunningham

County chief operation officer Garry Earls told reporters that officials with Metro-West fire district and Meramec Valley ambulance district are among five agencies that have approached the county about shifting their dispatching to the county’s new emergency communications center, which is set to begin operations in a couple of months.

Earls emphasized that the inquiring districts had yet to submit a formal proposal.

Cunningham said Wednesday night that it was clear by the commission's vote that Earls had been wrong in his assertion about the number of districts seeking a change.

The new center already is slated to handle dispatching for the county’s police department and the 65 municipalities that already contract with the county for police dispatching.  Earls said that the new center – financed with a special sales tax approved by voters in 2010 – would have the capacity to handle fire and ambulance services as well.

Most of the county’s fire and ambulance dispatching is currently handled by Central County, which is owned and operated by six fire or ambulance entities: Monarch, Metro-West,  West County EMS, Creve Coeur and Maryland Heights fire protection districts, and Meramec Ambulance District. The commission president  is from Meramec and the vice president is from Metro-West.

Central County provides dispatching for 34 fire or ambulance districts, Cunningham said. Monarch has the largest ownership share.

Earls contends that all of Central County’s co-owners – except for Monarch -- are seeking to shift to the county’s new service. Cunningham disputed Earls’ account, identifying the would-be defectors as West County, Creve Coeur and Maryland Heights.

Earls said the fire and ambulance boards seeking the switch were dissatisfied with the Central County Commission's operations and its frequent lack of a quorum at meetings.  The commission's costs also were becoming an issue, he said.

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley.
Credit (St. Louis County website)
Charlie Dooley

Cunningham said that politics were really at the heart of the split. She said the dissident boards have been upset with Monarch ever since last April’s board election, which Cunningham won and which put critics of the firefighters’ union – Local 2665 -- in control of the fire board. She said the commission is now split 3-3 between fire boards with close union ties and fire boards who run their districts "in a business-like fashion accountable to taxpayers rather than unions."

Cunningham, a Republican and former state senator, also linked the dispute to this fall’s election of a new county executive. She is considering a possible bid for the job; two other Republicans already have filed.

Dooley, a Democrat in office for a decade, is seeking re-election. County Councilman Steve Stenger is challenging Dooley in the August primary.

Dooley said the discussions involving fire dispatching had nothing to do with this year’s elections and repeatedly emphasized that the matter had originated with the fire and ambulance districts – not with the county.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.