Aging county emergency radio system must be replaced, officials say

This diagram shows how the components of the SERS system fit together in an emergency. When the 911 call center fields an emergency call, they put out the word to first responders via the SERS system, which connects the dispatcher to the responders’ mobile and portable radios through a system of 20 transmission towers covering 940 square miles of Snohomish County.

According to the responders who depend on it, the Snohomish County Emergency Radio System (SERS) is a dinosaur.

In service since the mid 1990s, the system operates 24/7, carrying an average 19,000 transmissions each day. It depends on roughly 5,000 portable and mobile analog Motorola radios, many of which were manufactured before the turn of the century. When they break down — which is happening with increasing frequency — parts are difficult to find. And it will soon become impossible, as Motorola has announced that they will completely stop making parts and supporting the equipment in 2020.

Local public safety leaders from throughout Snohomish County — including police and fire chiefs as well as locally elected officials — have sent a direct request to members of Snohomish County Council and County Executive Dave Somers asking that they take “urgent action” to help replace Snohomish County’s obsolete and potentially-failing, 20-year old emergency 911 radio system.

It’s estimated the upgraded radios could cost taxpayers $70 million to $75 million.

South County Fire Chief Bruce Stedman sees this as a critical need. “Our radio system is coming to the end of its useful lifespan and replacing it is crucial to continued communications for first responders,” Stedman said. “It’s our link to dispatch and vital to the emergency services our firefighters provide to the public.”

In a letter to county officials, SERS Board president and Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring urged county officials to join him in endorsing a countywide funding mechanism to pay for replacing the current SERS equipment with a modern digital system.

“Increased risk of emergency radio system breakdowns and failure is unacceptable and must be avoided,” Nehring said. “Funding is needed to replace Snohomish County’s outdated, analog emergency radio system. Soon our two-way radios will no longer be supported by the manufacturer and already are at increased risk of failing. A new, digital, P25 radio system is much needed.”

P25, short for Project 25, is a national standard for digital mobile communication designed to enhance interoperability between radio manufactures and radio systems. Unlike the voice-only analog systems they replace, P25 systems transmit data as well as voice and have become the standard for North American public service agencies and emergency responders (learn more about P25 here).

Under state law, a new radio system could be funded in two ways: via a new sales tax or a property tax increase. One idea, supported by the Snohomish County Fire Chiefs’ Association, would be a sales tax of one-tenth of 1 percent, or about one cent for every $10. Another option would be a property tax increase.

The Snohomish County Council must approve SERS funding, and then submit it to the voters.

Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary strongly supports replacing the SERS radio system as soon as possible.

“Leaders of local law enforcement agencies from throughout Snohomish County know that our first responders must have reliable and dependable radios to communicate with each other and with the County’s 911 call dispatch center,” said Trenary. “Our responders cannot effectively and safely respond to police, fire and emergency medical emergencies without reliable and dependable two-way radios.”

Breakdowns mean that 911 responders will lack reliable communications, something that can mean the difference between life and death. Think situations like the Oso mudslide or the Marysville school shooting.

But time is running out. Once funding is approved, building the new digital system could take an estimated three to five years, and with the current equipment heading for the technology graveyard, officials say there’s no time to lose.

“The public safety radio system is an essential part of our infrastructure for first responders – police, fire, aid. The system is now 20 years old, and at its end of its life,” said Edmonds Police Chief Al Compaan. “When I’m asked why we need to replace it, I often reply with a smile and a rhetorical question, ‘Do you have a usable 20-year-old television in your home?’ That’s precisely where we are right now, and why replacement is a ‘must-do’. Simply put – the hardware and software that drives the system is old. We have no choice but to replace it.”

Last year Snohomish County’s Purchasing Division issued a request for proposals (RFP) to procure a new countywide radio system. Four potential bidders have expressed interest in the project. A contract could be awarded as soon as March.

But the Snohomish County Council must approve SERS funding, and then submit it to the voters.

The problem was also outlined by Ralph Krusey, Chief Administrative Officer of SERS, during a presentation at the Mountlake Terrace City Council’s Jan. 16 business meeting. A similar presentation is scheduled before the Edmonds City Council Feb. 6.

“You don’t want to have a battery that goes out on you on the way out to an emergency call,” Krusey said. “You have to have a system that’s reliable and stands up in all conditions.” This is why emergency radio is preferred to cell phones for first responder services to remote areas; cell phones don’t have reliable service in more remote areas, he explained.

“If the system doesn’t work when you call and you need service because one of your loved ones is injured or ill or having a heart attack, you don’t want the system not to work. You want to be able to get service,” he added.

If the Snohomish County Council doesn’t approve a funding mechanism, individual cities could also pay a proportional share to upgrade the system, Krusey said. For Mountlake Terrace, that could range from $1 million to $1.6 million.

“No matter which way we go, our citizens are still going to pay for it,” said Councilmember Kyoko Matsumoto Wright. “If it’s through the county, it will be sales tax or property tax. If it’s the city, we have to find a way of raising that money.”

Mountlake Terrace Mayor Jerry Smith said that a countywide sales tax “is probably the most fair way. Everybody gets taxed, not just property owners,” and it only requires a 50 percent vote for approval, Smith said.

Learn more about SERS at the Snohomish County Emergency Radio System web site at this link.

–By Larry Vogel

11 Replies to “Aging county emergency radio system must be replaced, officials say”

  1. What?? Snohomish county has a lot of money. They have lots of camera stop lights which brings in millions. They have tons of businesses they tax, not to mention home property tax. Gas taxes…Casinos? Are we just paying for more retirement funds? I have no doubt that they need an upgradeD Systems, but what happened to the idea of getting the money by cutting back programs that don’t work? There are TONS of them. Or employee positions that have been outdated with the newer technology? I hear that at all companies but NEVER the state? Hmmmm


  2. Without sales or property tax how would the calculation go for Edmonds paying our proportional share? Population? Crime rate? Land Mass? Some from of current usage data, like number of calls per citizen? While we should move forward with replacement the funding should not overly burden Edmonds citizens. A biased opinion on my part but we do not have any idea what is meant by “proportional share”.


  3. 70m-75m cost with a population for the county of 788,000 is $89-95 per person. MLT has about 20,000 folks so on a per head basis the cost would be $1.9m-2.0m not the $1.0m-1.6m estimated. MLT must have an way to proportional the cost in a way that benefits their citizens and the expense of others in the county. How do we find out how Mr. Krusey made the proportional estimates? It surely was not based on population.


    1. and Darrol you mocked me when I suggested we hear from our Public Safety leaders regarding their requirements to keep us safe, during the State of the City address.

      You cannot realistically tell me or any other citizen a vital system of this type, reaching this age and un-supportability is just the result of funds being directed in other directions. This is just one of many systems, resources and tools our brave public safety officers have not had funded. Why? I cannot tell you, but the Chief and Fire Captain could.

      Hence my request for us to have some messaging coming from the top more frequently than the occasional town hall and a State of City Address, that doesn’t include them.


    1. My sincere apologies Darrol, I am mistaken! It was Ron Wambolt who mocked me, ,when I suggested we hear from our Police Chief and Fire Captain directly during the State of the City Address.

      To me and most citizen’s chasing the cost per person or household is an exercise in futility. The cost is what it is and it is extremely high because maintaining this vital system was pushed behind the pet projects of those approving budgets. We even had a current city council member propose to negate upgrading the Edmonds City phone system in favor of refurbishing conference rooms.

      Hence my suggestion for our acting public safety leaders to communicate directly with the citizens they protect about their actual needs more cohesively. It should be us as citizens lobbying the mayor, city council and county officials for financial support for public safety. Currently, this is process is backward. The Police Chief and Fire Captain present their needs to politicians whom then pretend to know what is best for our public safety and appropriate funds accordingly.

      I am tired of watching our city degrade due to crime and lack of enforcement capability (which is due to a lack of $$). It’s time for citizen’s to say, “enough is enough” and either fund the actual public safety needs our leadership requires or you will be out of office.


      1. Thanks for you comments. Being confused for Ron W is a compliment.
        In the second paragraph of your original post you seemed to say I was proposing redirecting funds. I said no such thing. Did you confuse me with the comments made by Joy??

        My point about how to pay for this needed upgrade was that if we just put it on property tax then Edmonds will pay more than our fair share of the costs. This is the same problem that was discussed during the original Regional Fire Authority exercise. With our average home values greater then other places we would have paid more for fire service than our neighbors just because our homes have a higher value. Our leaders wisely decided to find a more equitable way to pay for fire services.

        My view and apparently the view held by council person Dave Teitzel is we should try to find a way to pay for these services with an eye to paying our fare share instead of having Edmonds citizens paying a disproportionate share.

        This same issue pops up with the upcoming Library election. Edmonds pays more for the library system because of our home values than our neighbors. I recall the math to suggest we will pay $1.3m per year more than average. That $1.3m would go a long ways to improve our own services. Added police, more black top, more parking, you name it. Exports sometimes are good but in this case we are exporting our tax dollars for the benefit of others.


  4. In this instance, since each citizen of Snohomish County benefits equally from the availability of SERS, seems to me the assessment should be calculated on a “per household” basis, not on an assessed value basis. Otherwise, Edmonds’ citizens will be picking up a disproportionate share of the cost.


  5. Dave, I would agree that some method that does some sort of who benefits and who pays analysis would be a more fair way to pay for services like this. When things are paid for by property tax Edmonds tax payers often foot the bill for others. Even if Edmonds were to agree to a household or head count plan for “our contribution” then we could assess ourselves on a property tax basis and still pay only our fair share as a community.


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