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Proposition 1: A seamless, modern 911 system

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Oct. 15, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
October 14, 2011 6:02 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Suggestion: Read the article below, written by the Pierce County sheriff and a leader of the county’s fire commissioners.

Done? Now you know why The News Tribune’s editorial board is endorsing Proposition 1, which would enact a tenth-of-one-percent sales tax to create a seamless, countywide, all-digital 911 dispatch system. This would add a penny to a $10 purchase.

Proposition 1 would fix two big, interrelated problems that have long plagued the county’s police officers and firefighters – and the citizens who depend on them.

Problem One is the county’s fragmented, patchwork system of dispatch agencies. Many counties have one or two dispatch centers that handle all emergency calls: This creates greater efficiencies and economies, with modern GPS and digital mapping technologies letting dispatchers rapidly direct first responders to emergencies.

But turf wars among agencies and local jurisdictions have saddled Pierce County with an antiquated multiplicity of agencies and centers. Four separate “primary call centers” handle 911 calls, which in turn relay all fire and emergency medical calls to two additional centers run by fire departments.

Problem One led to Problem Two. Over the years, the fragmented agencies have bought different kinds of radio equipment – mostly analog systems that are now obsolete – that don’t always talk to each other and sometimes (in dead spots) don’t talk at all. Below, Paul Pastor and Larry Nelson spell out some of the tragic and near-tragic consequences.

No one designing a new system from scratch would come up with anything like what Pierce County has now.

What firefighters and police would come up with is a modern, unified, thoroughly integrated dispatch system – like the one Proposition 1 would create.

That’s why all the fire departments and districts in the county want to see this passed. Nearly all law enforcement agencies have endorsed it as well – the only major exception being the Puyallup Police Department.

Unfortunately, the Puyallup City Council opposes a countywide system; it is embracing the old parochialism that that perpetuated the radio patchwork in the first place. The police department must do the council’s bidding, but note that Central Pierce Fire & Rescue – which handles Puyallup’s fire calls – has endorsed Proposition 1.

What does the council know about emergency services that Puyallup’s firefighters don’t?

Buying new radio systems is not optional. Motorola and other manufacturers will be ditching the old technology in a few years; jurisdictions that depend on analog, such as Tacoma and Puyallup, will have to go digital regardless.

With those purchases looming anyway, this is also the time to end the fragmentation.

Proposition 1 would not only integrate agencies and technology, it would also consolidate emergency dispatch in two buildings, one for fire calls, the other for police.

The redundancy makes sense in a county vulnerable to devastating lahars and earthquakes; if one center goes down, its calls can be routed automatically to the other.

This is a bad time for a tax increase, however small. But anytime is a bad time for obsolete radios and a fractured dispatch system, the problems Proposition 1 would finally fix.

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