EVERETT — To keep police and fire radios from failing, Snohomish County has been stockpiling old parts from eBay. The website, founded in the 1990s, is slightly older than the aging emergency radio gear that saves lives each day in the county.
In the next three years Motorola will stop making parts for the analog equipment that has been a critical link for local first responders for decades.
Upgraded radios could cost taxpayers $70 million to $75 million.
Without them, the 911 system will be at risk of breaking down, according to the police and firefighters who use 5,000 portable radios around the county. They say the upgrade is urgently needed for the public agency called the Snohomish County Emergency Radio System, or SERS.
County leaders plan to buy P25 digital radios and the gear to support them, to serve 50 police and fire agencies from Edmonds to Darrington. This year voters likely will see a ballot measure to fund the project. A pitch to voters began Thursday at a press conference.
“Think about your cell phone you were using 20 years ago,” Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary told reporters. “It looks tremendously different than the one you use today.”
He asked people to consider the real-life, local emergencies — the Oso mudslide, or the Marysville school shooting — and what it would mean if there had been communication breakdowns between police officers, firefighters, dispatchers and 911 callers.
“There’s no greater need than communications, (for) the people who are calling us who need to be rescued, on top of a mud pile, (or) children calling us from a school letting us know where they are, so we know if they’re friend or foe,” the sheriff said.
State law would allow the radio fix to be funded by a new sales tax or a property tax increase.
An endorsement letter from the Snohomish County Fire Chiefs’ Association, for example, lent support to a sales tax of one-tenth of 1 percent, or about one cent for every $10. This was the model used by Pierce County to fund a new dispatch system in 2011. Another option would be a property tax increase, like the $246 million plan approved by two-thirds of King County voters in a special election in 2015.
The existing radio system “will reach its end-of-life in 2020,” reads the letter from the fire chiefs. “When that happens, it will be increasingly difficult to maintain reliable radio service between 911 dispatchers and our first responders, which is a fact that we need to address as public safety leaders in Snohomish County.”
Endorsement letters for the upgrade have also come from cities such as Marysville and Lynnwood, several fire districts, and the local associations of police chiefs and fire commissioners.
The system has been degrading for a long time, like an old computer getting clunkier. The fear is that someone will call 911, but the dispatcher can’t reach police, firefighters or paramedics.
Dispatch equipment has seriously malfunctioned or failed a dozen times in the past year. Three times, the system was at risk of total failure. All of the parts used for repairs will stop being manufactured in two years.
Building a digital system will take three to five years.
The most recent breakdown was last week, when communications were cut off for about 20 minutes on Jan. 11, said Ralph Krusey, chief administrative officer for SERS.
An upgrade would aim to fill gaps on the radio coverage map, around Verlot, Machias and the western shoreline of the county. Exactly where new towers would be built would depend on the agreement with the vendor.
A request for bids was released in fall 2017, with a deadline for proposals in late February. A bidder could be chosen by March.
So far four vendors — Motorola, Harris, EFJohnson, and Kenwood — have toured the county’s radio towers, according to SERS, which has offices in Marysville. The agency oversees about $25 million in radios, towers and public safety gear.
The Snohomish County Council must approve any SERS measure before it goes to voters.
Local dispatchers take about 1 million emergency calls each year.
Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @snocaleb.