Imagine waiting 20 years to upgrade your cellphone.
Had you frugally held on to your phone for that long, today you’d be walking around with a handset with a small numeric display and a push-button dial. And it might have the vestige of an antenna protruding from the top. An improvement over basic black, the Nokia 510, for example, came in a range of case colors. And it made phone calls.
The police, fire and emergency services agencies throughout the county, including Snohomish County Sheriff now are approaching 20 years of service with their current emergency radio system, a system that with its age since it was first installed in 2001 is increasingly susceptible to failure and for which parts won’t be available for much longer.
Managed by SERS, the county’s emergency radio system is nearly at the end of its service life, say those who depend upon it, including Sheriff Ty Trenary. Recognizing its age, SERS has been trying to build a stockpile of parts for radios and transmission equipment, even scrolling through eBay for parts, Trenary told the editorial board. But the need to replace the system became even clearer recently when the system’s original vendor and supplier, Motorola, informed SERS that it will not offer parts or technical advice for the current system after 2020.
SERS current system offers communication over 940 square miles of the county. The system, which uses 20 towers interspersed throughout the county, connects 911 dispatchers with SNOCOM and SNOPAC with some 5,000 portable and mobile radios and laptops used by fire, emergency services and law enforcement agencies who are also able to communicate with any other radio in the system.
The system relays an average of about 10,000 messages a day that range from typical daily calls to large-scale disasters, such as the 2014 Oso landslide that required clear communication links among multiple agencies.
But the aging system is experiencing more equipment failures, which can lead to brief but disconcerting losses of coverage and communication. SERS officials have counted about 12 such failures in the last three years, three of which carried the risk of a system-wide loss of communication. A more recent failure cut communication in one area for 20 minutes.
An ill-timed loss of the radio system poses a deadly risk for the general public and for first responders, themselves.
SERS, which operates as an interlocal public agency and is led by local officials on its board of directors, is now gathering bids to replace the system with a $70 million to $75 million system that will include radios and transmission equipment for the system’s towers.
The new system, along with being digital, will feature radios with longer battery life, better network security and call quality and a larger coverage area.
State law allows such public emergency communication systems to be supported through either an increase in the sales tax or property tax. The Snohomish County Council is expected to decide between the options in time to put a ballot measure before voters in the fall. An increase in the sales tax of a tenth of 1 percent — or a penny for every $10 purchase — is one option voters might be asked to approve.
The SERS system was the victim of embezzlement recently, but its quick detection and response to the theft has shown the agency to be a careful steward of the public’s money and trust.
A former SERS official was fired from his position in late 2015 after discrepancies were discovered in what he had reported as his educational and certification achievements. Following the firing of Mark S. McDermott. 64, a police investigation and state audit discovered the misappropriation of more than $190,000, some of which had been used by McDermott for personal purchases and uses at his Arlington residence. Charges were not filed against McDermott because he committed suicide during the theft investigation.
Ralph Krusey, chief administrative officer for SERS, said the agency is continuing to work with its insurer regarding the loss. Some of the equipment has been sold at auction and the proceeds returned to the agency, he said. Krusey said he expects SERS to recoup most of the loss.
Following the theft and the audit, the agency also changed how purchases and expenditures are handled, setting up stricter controls that require approval from a supervisor and Krusey, as well as regular review and approval by the SERS board, a level of oversight that Krusey said goes beyond even that of most city councils.
The county cannot go much longer with an emergency communications system that will have to be patched together with an increasingly sparse supply of parts, and one that will still be susceptible to periodic failures. Even if SERS could find a reliable supply of parts, the system is at its capacity and would be unable to handle the county’s expected growth.
When asked this fall, voters should not hesitate to support the tax request. A modern and reliable communication system is an absolute necessity.