Election 2018: Proposition 1 would fund replacement of aging emergency radio system

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The Snohomish County Emergency Radio System links 911 dispatchers with responders. (Photo courtesy SERS)

Proposition 1 on the November ballot asks Snohomish County voters to approve an additional 1/10th of 1 percent sales tax (10 cents on every $100) to fund replacement of the aging Snohomish County Emergency Radio System (SERS).

The proposition is the result of Ordinance 18-037 passed by the Snohomish County Council earlier this year. The ordinance specifies that the funds be used only for the emergency communications system, not be diverted to other areas, and establishes an advisory board to ensure this.

SERS links 911 dispatchers with first responders, and comes into play the instant a 911 call is received. As soon as the 911 operator gets a caller’s location, a signal goes out via SERS to bring responders to the scene. The operator will continue talking with the caller to get further details, but thanks to the SERS system, responders frequently arrive while they are still on the phone.

In service since the mid-1990s, SERS 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 officials say is happening with increasing frequency — parts are difficult to find. Motorola has already stopped making parts, leaving SERS with no option but to go to the parts graveyard to keep the system running.

“With no new parts available, we go to the used market to get what we need to patch these old radios together,” said Brad Steiner, SERS Executive Director. “Mostly we’re getting old parts that were salvaged by used equipment resellers. They get these from other emergency systems across the county that have already decommissioned and upgraded. Sometimes we’re literally patching our equipment together with parts we buy on eBay.”

According to SERS officials, equipment breakdowns are becoming more common.

SERS diagram
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. (Graphic courtesy SERS)

“In January of this year we had a major breakdown that affected about half the county,” said SERS spokesperson Rosemary O’Neill. “Police, fire and EMS operations were cut off for almost half an hour. Since then there have been about 30 smaller breakdowns.  This is unacceptable. Lives literally hang in the balance. When you call 911, you expect — and deserve — help to come in a timely manner.  Again, we’re talking about peoples’ lives here.”

Given the immediate need, SERS has moved ahead and requested proposals for a replacement system. These have been evaluated, and Motorola has been chosen as the preferred vendor. Pending approval of funding, work would begin immediately, and officials hope to have the new system in place and operational in 2021.

While the proposal has garnered wide support from a host of local government officials, law enforcement, fire and other emergency responders, it is opposed by some who see it as the result of poor planning on the part of politicians who should have anticipated this earlier and not call on taxpayers to “rescue them from their own negligence.” Opponents writing in the general election voters guide urge voters to “vote no to hold our leaders responsible for their carelessness.”

Opponents also cite the current 911 surcharge in phone bills, saying that we are “already paying a tax for the E911 system,” and that “emergency communication systems are already provided funds from [this] surcharge. Passing this tax would mean that you’re now being double-taxed, for the same system.”

Asked about this, Steiner explained that the 911 surcharge on phone bills only funds getting customer calls to the dispatch center and connecting the caller with a 911 operator. “Once the call comes in, all communication between dispatchers and responders is via SERS, which receives no funds from the 911 surcharge on phone bills,” he continued. “Proposition 1 is not a double tax, but will go entirely to replacing the aging SERS infrastructure, which doesn’t get a penny from the 911 surcharge.”

The full ballot language and arguments for and against are available on the recent Snohomish County Voters Guide (scroll down to Snohomish County Proposition 1).

More information on SERS and the upcoming ballot measure is available on the SERS website and on SERS’ “Hear the Call” brochure. We have been unable to locate additional information from those who oppose the measure beyond what is available in the Voters Guide.

Also see the January 2018 article for additional details on how the system works and why officials say it needs to be replaced.

— By Larry Vogel

 

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