Thursday, September 15, 2011

Chamber Supports 9-1-1 Measure

The Chamber endorses and urges you vote “Approved” for Pierce County Proposition 1.


After the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Congress ordered improvements to the emergency communications system nationwide.

January 1, 2013 is the FCC deadline to switch from 25 kHz spectrum/bandwidth to 12.5 kHz technology. In 2016, Motorola will no longer support 700-800 mHz analog smartzone 4.1 radio systems including radios/controllers and repeaters.

Pierce County fire and police agencies currently have a mix of 10 analog and digital systems on different frequencies. Police and Fire generally operate on separate radio systems. This condition is known as radio “interoperability;” agencies cannot talk to each other without patches. A study last fall showed that 43% of Pierce County falls under a category of radio coverage that is described this way: “Speech understandable with repetition only rarely required; some noise/distortion.”

Due to the number of agencies involved and the huge cost, local authorities have been approaching the challenge piecemeal – and not making much progress. Current dispatch centers are too small, outdated and not equipped to meet national standards for critical infrastructure. Under the current system, police and fire agencies operate on different radio systems. Some can talk to each other, but others cannot without help from dispatchers.

The two dispatch centers are supposed to be redundant and support each other if one goes down; but there’s no room for redundancy. The Pierce County Sheriff was among those struggling to figure out how to pay for a mandatory radio upgrade that will cost millions of dollars. Lack of bandwidth limits ability to transmit GIS maps and other data to officers in the field.

The good news – combined dispatch centers could be implemented cheaper jointly than individually. Other jurisdictions should consider joining the system, which increases the economies of scale.

Pierce County leaders are asking voters to increase the sales tax to create a new, combined 911 dispatching agency and upgrade the police and fire radio system. The request is to raise the sales tax by one-tenth of one percent – or one penny on a $10 purchase – will be on the ballot in the Nov. 8 general election.

The ballot measure would create South Sound 911, which would combine three existing 911 call centers in Pierce County. They are the Law Enforcement Support Agency, which handles dispatching for 16 law enforcement agencies, including Tacoma and Lakewood police and the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department; Tacoma Fire Communications, which dispatches for the Tacoma Fire Department and Central Pierce Fire & Rescue; and Pierce County Fire Comm, which dispatches for 15 fire districts, cities and towns.

The concept for the umbrella agency has come after two years of meetings. Leaders hail the idea as a breakthrough because it brings police and fire dispatchers together in one agency and puts them all on a radio system where they can talk to each other in case of a catastrophic natural disaster or major police incident.

Two new dispatch centers would be built – one for law enforcement and one for fire and emergency medical services. The Emergency Operations Center (EOC) will continue to operate as an EOC. It was not designed to be a large regional dispatch facility.

The radio system for police officers and firefighters would be upgraded to meet looming changes mandated by the Federal Communications Commission.

A data network would be built to enhance the ability of police officers to receive maps and other data in the field.

The bonds will be issued in two separate offerings. The first bonds will be for $75 million, will mature in 25 years and be used to construct the two new dispatch facilities. The second bond will mature in 15 years (10 year maturity is being considered) for $35 million to construct the regional 800/700 MHz digital radio communication system.

If done individually by each agency, the costs will be higher. Pierce County believes its cost to upgrade to a 700 MHz /Narrowband VHF system at $16 - $19 million. Tacoma’s cost could exceed $10 million. Fife could continue to use their narrow band VHF system, but would continue to carry multiple radios in their police cars and fire trucks to be able to communicate between police and fire. But if they choose to go to an 800/700 MHz system, their cost could run $3 - $6 million.

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