Experts agree an upgraded digital system will save lives

Passage of Prop. 1 would boost sales tax to pay for much-needed upgrade to outdated emergency communication radios
By Dan Aznoff | Oct 05, 2018

Mill Creek Police Chief Greg Elwin was not on duty the night when a 20-minute outage to the Emergency Radio System earlier this year left agencies in the southern portion of Snohomish County unable to properly respond to an emergency call.

“Those 20 minutes must have seemed like hours to dispatchers who did not have the ability to coordinate a response to an emergency situation,” Elwin told The Beacon. “Agencies from Mill Creek to Snohomish could talk, but they could not listen to what anybody else was doing.

“Or they could listen. But not participate in the solution.”

The chief said it is “eerie” to talk to somebody on the emergency radio and not know if you have been heard. It could be even worse to not hear information transmitted by another agency during a critical situation.

The outage this spring was just one of 15 failures that have been reported this year to the 20-year-old system, according to Brad Steiner, executive director of the Snohomish County Emergency Radio System (SERS). The extended downtime, he said, requires urgent calls to be transferred more often, which slows the response to those in need of assistance.

An updated emergency radio system will provide more than just two-way communications, Elwin said. A digital system would allow multiple agencies to coordinate responses and not leave portions of the county without emergency responders for an unknown amount of time.

“There are bloggers who receive news of emergencies in our community faster than the first responders,” Mill Creek Mayor Pam Pruitt told her colleagues during a recent council meeting.

Pruitt said Snohomish County has already been forced to shop for replacement parts on eBay and Craigslist to keep the system operational. The manufacturer of the aging system, Motorola, notified users earlier this year the company would stop producing parts for the system in 2020.

 

Pruitt serves as the city’s representative on the SERS board. She has been issuing warnings of even more widespread failures to the council for more than a year. The current system was placed in operation in the 1990s and handles an average of 19,000 calls per day.

She then asked how many people still use cell phones that are 20 years old.

If approved, Prop. 1 on the November general election ballot would raise the sales tax in the county by .1 of 1 percent (10 cents on every $100 dollars) to pay for the new digital radio system. The cost of the system currently being negotiated, according to Steiner, is approximately $68 million.

The new tax would be a wise use of taxpayer dollars to keep the community safe, said Mill Creek Councilmember Mike Todd.

A voted scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 4, would have authorized the merger of SERS into the SNO911 system. Steiner said the merger would expand administrative portion of SERS from its current level of 8 employees and 20 locations to the 120 employees employed through SNO911 to safeguard the county.

 

Steiner emphasized that Prop. 1 was not designed exclusively for SERS. If approved, the funds would be allocated for an upgraded radio system that will be used by whatever agencies are responsible for emergency response in Snohomish County.

“The ultimate configuration of the emergency response system and the future of SERS will be in the hands of the county council,” Steiner told The Beacon. “The first priority of whatever we are left with after the vote is the protection of the people who live and work in Snohomish County.”

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