Snohomish County is clearing the airwaves.
The aging and overcrowded radio system used by police and firefighters is getting a major upgrade this year after nearly a decade of debate.
The change is expected to help speed aid to your door when you dial 911, ensure dispatchers can send emergency crews during a major disaster and improve radio coverage.
The powerful new 800-megahertz (cycles per second) system will provide more emergency radio channels and use them more efficiently than the existing VHF system, said Ron Solemsaas, Snohomish County Emergency Radio System project coordinator.
“It’s exciting. We’re really looking forward to this,” he said. “Agencies are champing at the bit to start using 800 megahertz.”
The $34.2 million communications system will be installed in two phases, starting with the county’s southwest corner.
Firefighters and police in nine cities along I-5 corridor are switching this year, including Everett, Edmonds, Lynnwood, Marysville, Mill Creek, Mountlake Terrace, Mukilteo, Brier and Woodway.
The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, Department of Emergency Management and county medical examiner will also change to 800-megahertz frequencies.
Cities in east Snohomish County have balked at the cost of the system, and may opt for an alternative.
Some east county agencies doubt that the system will work as well as promised, fearing they’ll have to pay even more to fix problems.
The 800-megahertz system uses microwave transmitters at towers placed throughout Snohomish County to link emergency communication instead of telephone lines.
The new towers are built to withstand a sizeable earthquake, Solemsaas said. The older towers used by the existing VHF system were built in the 1960s and ’70s and could crumble if Snohomish County is hit by the Big One, he said, crippling emergency communication.
The towers weren’t the only reason for the switch to 800-megahertz frequencies, which is also used by King County agencies.
Everyday communication between emergency crews is crowding existing radio airwaves, and there’s no room for expansion, said Snohomish County Emergency Radio System manager Spencer Bahner.
“There are times on a busy night it’s hard to get airtime,” said Mountlake Terrace Police Chief Scott Smith. “That’s obviously an officer safety issue. If you’re trying to get airtime to tell a dispatcher you need help and can’t, that’s a problem.”
The key feature of the 800-megahertz system is that the additional channels make it easier for police, firefighters and dispatchers to talk to each other without fear the airwaves will be busy, Solemsaas said.
“There’s a lot more airtime available,” said Mill Creek Police Chief Bob Crannell, whose department on Dec. 29 became the first in the county to make the switch.
“The coverage is better, and as more people join, it will continue to improve,” he said. “The (transition) was so smooth that nobody noticed … We haven’t experienced one issue with our radio system.”
Mill Creek officers tested the 800-megahertz system throughout the city, including inside schools, grocery stores and other buildings.
The only problem police found is that officers’ portable radios are scratchy inside department headquarters. That will be fixed by installing an amplifier, which boosts signal strength, Bahner said.
The 800-megahertz system also eliminates most existing radio dead zones, he said.
“There’re a lot of little areas in the south part of (Mountlake Terrace) that you call dispatch and they can’t hear you,” Smith said. “Officers know where those areas are and try to avoid them.”
Switching to the higher frequencies should fix that problem, he said.
Another benefit is that officers can hit a distress button on their new radios to signal if they need immediate help.
In addition, the system allows more agencies to talk to each other. For example, during a flood the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office would be able to talk to the Department of Emergency Management directly.
The 800-megahertz system will link with the existing VHF system, so police and firefighters who don’t use the higher frequencies can still talk to each other.
Worth the cost?
Agencies involved in the first phase of the 800-megahertz system say the cost is worth it.
“I am sympathetic to (Monroe and Sultan’s) situation,” Solemaas said. “If there was a way we could have met countywide public safety goals with the VHF system we would have done it.”
The Snohomish County Council underwrote the cost of the project in 1998 through council-issued bonds, after a levy to pay for the new system failed in 1996. Some cities are paying their share out of capital funds.
“This has been a long time in coming,” said Everett Fire Marshal Warren Burns.
“Practically speaking, people won’t notice any difference in their service at all,” he said. “(But) they will have a radio system that is reliable and will assist them when they need help.”
Katherine Schiffner and Diana Hefley are reporters at The Herald in Everett.
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