Proposal to merge 911 call centers stuck on details

EVERETT — A town whose police department handles an average of 1.4 emergencies a day is providing some of the most vocal criticism of a proposed merger of Snohomish County’s 911 centers.

Supporters of the merger say it would save money, eliminate transfers of 911 calls, and reduce delays in emergency service. The transfers were a problem in the 2016 mass shooting in Mukilteo. One of the callers put on hold was a young man with a gunshot wound.

However, other local leaders are worried about who will have seats on the new 911 board.

At a public meeting Thursday, Woodway Town Councilman Kent Saltonstall urged mayors, councilmembers and police and fire chiefs from around the county to slow down the merger talks.

“I’m just not ready to keep going with all the sirens and flashing lights as fast as we’ve been going,” he said.

Saltonstall and Brier Mayor Bob Colinas have been skeptical of the proposal, which would reallocate how much say south county cities have in managing public safety dollars. Brier police handle about 11 calls a day. For comparison, the sheriff’s office has 507.

The merger would combine SNOPAC in Everett and SNOCOM in Mountlake Terrace. In addition to answering 911 calls, they dispatch for more than 50 police and fire departments. Their services cost about $20 million of public money annually. Consolidation could save at least $1 million.

The transfers happen because of boundary lines.

Cellphone towers aren’t perfect at routing 911 calls, especially in the unincorporated areas between Everett and Lynnwood. Communication problems also occur when police and firefighters working in the same part of the county use different dispatch centers.

Each year, about 50,000 emergency calls to 911 get transferred between SNOPAC and SNOCOM. That’s a daily average of more than 130. During the transfer, the caller’s voice can be drowned out by the ringing sound. A typical transfer has a delay of 21 seconds.

“I worry about this every day,” Sheriff Ty Trenary said, adding “no offense to Woodway.”

The current proposal calls for a 911 governing board of 15 people. Much of the contention has focused on whether the board should be led by elected officials, police and firefighters, or a mix. Some elected leaders say police and firefighters wouldn’t do enough to control costs. First responders say their input is crucial for the system to keep them safe.

Unincorporated areas, along with the cities of Everett and Marysville, account for the majority of Snohomish County’s 755,000 residents. The new 911 board likely would have caucuses to ensure representation for smaller cities and towns, who are charged for their dispatching.

“There are a lot of trust issues we still need to work through,” Trenary said. “At some point, we have to break the logjam.”

The current merger talks have been going since 2014, but the idea has been discussed off and on for decades. Mukilteo Fire Chief Chris Alexander told his peers “we’ve come too far” to reach an impasse.

Fire District 7 Commissioner Roy Waugh, who also serves on the SNOPAC board, said he supports a quick decision. During the years of talks, thousands of 911 callers have experienced hold times, he said.

“It’s time the politics get out of the way of service delivery in Snohomish County,” he said.

A final vote on the merger could happen later this year, with consolidation possible in 2018.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @rikkiking.

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