Aging county emergency radio system must be replaced, officials say

According to the responders who depend on it, the Snohomish County Emergency Radio System (SERS) is a dinosaur.

In service since the mid 1990s, the system operates 24/7, carrying an average 19,000 transmissions each day. It depends on roughly 5,000 portable and mobile analog Motorola radios, many of which were manufactured before the turn of the century. When they break down — which is happening with increasing frequency — parts are difficult to find. And it will soon become impossible, as Motorola has announced that they will completely stop making parts and supporting the equipment in 2020.

Local public safety leaders from throughout Snohomish County — including police and fire chiefs as well as locally elected officials — have sent a direct request to members of Snohomish County Council and County Executive Dave Somers asking that they take “urgent action” to help replace Snohomish County’s obsolete and potentially-failing, 20-year old emergency 911 radio system.

It’s estimated the upgraded radios could cost taxpayers $70 million to $75 million.

South County Fire Chief Bruce Stedman sees this as a critical need. “Our radio system is coming to the end of its useful lifespan and replacing it is crucial to continued communications for first responders,” Stedman said. “It’s our link to dispatch and vital to the emergency services our firefighters provide to the public.”

In a letter to County officials, SERS Board president and Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring urged county officials to join him in endorsing a countywide funding mechanism to pay for replacing the current SERS equipment with a modern digital system.

“Increased risk of emergency radio system breakdowns and failure is unacceptable and must be avoided,” Nehring said. “Funding is needed to replace Snohomish County’s outdated, analog emergency radio system. Soon our two-way radios will no longer be supported by the manufacturer and already are at increased risk of failing. A new, digital, P25 radio system is much needed.”

P25, short for Project 25, is a national standard for digital mobile communication designed to enhance interoperability between radio manufactures and radio systems. Unlike the voice-only analog systems they replace, P25 systems transmit data as well as voice and have become the standard for North American public service agencies and emergency responders (learn more about P25 here).

Under state law, a new radio system could be funded in two ways: via a new sales tax or a property tax increase. One idea, supported by the Snohomish County Fire Chiefs’ Association, would be a sales tax of one-tenth of 1 percent, or about one cent for every $10. Another option would be a property tax increase.

The Snohomish County Council must approve SERS funding, and then submit it to the voters.

Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary strongly supports replacing the SERS radio system as soon as possible.

“Leaders of local law enforcement agencies from throughout Snohomish County know that our first responders must have reliable and dependable radios to communicate with each other and with the County’s 911 call dispatch center,” said Trenary. “Our responders cannot effectively and safely respond to police, fire and emergency medical emergencies without reliable and dependable two-way radios.”

Breakdowns mean that 911 responders will lack reliable communications, something that can mean the difference between life and death. Think situations like the Oso mudslide or the Marysville school shooting.

But time is running out. Once funding is approved, building the new digital system could take an estimated three to five years, and with the current equipment heading for the technology graveyard, officials say there’s no time to lose.

“The public safety radio system is an essential part of our infrastructure for first responders – police, fire, aid. The system is now 20 years old, and at its end of its life,” said Edmonds Police Chief Al Compaan. “When I’m asked why we need to replace it, I often reply with a smile and a rhetorical question, ‘Do you have a usable 20-year-old television in your home?’ That’s precisely where we are right now, and why replacement is a ‘must-do’. Simply put – the hardware and software that drives the system is old. We have no choice but to replace it.”

Last year Snohomish County’s Purchasing Division issued a request for proposals (RFP) to procure a new countywide radio system. Four potential bidders have expressed interest in the project. A contract could be awarded as soon as March.

But the Snohomish County Council must approve SERS funding, and then submit it to the voters.

The problem was also outlined by Ralph Krusey, Chief Administrative Officer of SERS, during a presentation at the Mountlake Terrace City Council’s Jan. 16 business meeting.

“You don’t want to have a battery that goes out on you on the way out to an emergency call,” Krusey said. “You have to have a system that’s reliable and stands up in all conditions.” This is why emergency radio is preferred to cell phones for first responder services to remote areas; cell phones don’t have reliable service in more remote areas, he explained.

“If the system doesn’t work when you call and you need service because one of your loved ones is injured or ill or having a heart attack, you don’t want the system not to work. You want to be able to get service,” he added.

If the Snohomish County Council doesn’t approve a funding mechanism, individual cities could also pay a proportional share to upgrade the system, Krusey said.

“No matter which way we go, our citizens are still going to pay for it,” said Councilmember Kyoko Matsumoto Wright. “If it’s through the county, it will be sales tax or property tax. If it’s the city, we have to find a way of raising that money.”

Mountlake Terrace Mayor Jerry Smith said that a countywide sales tax “is probably the most fair way. Everybody gets taxed, not just property owners,” and it only requires a 50 percent vote for approval, Smith said.

Learn more about SERS at the Snohomish County Emergency Radio System web site at this link.

–By Larry Vogel

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