EVERETT — To keep Snohomish County police and fire radios from failing, local government has been stockpiling old parts from eBay.
Motorola no longer will make parts for the analog radios and radio towers that have served the county since 1999. That leaves the system at risk of breaking down, according to the police, firefighters and dispatchers who use 5,000 portable radios in the county. They say an upgrade is urgently needed for the Snohomish County Emergency Radio System, or SERS.
The existing radio system “will reach its end-of-life in 2020,” reads a letter from the Snohomish County Fire Chiefs’ Association, endorsing a system upgrade. “When that happens, it will be increasingly difficult to maintain reliable radio service between 911 dispatchers and our first responders, which is a fact that we need to address as public safety leaders in Snohomish County.”
Dispatch equipment has seriously malfunctioned or failed at least a dozen times in the past year, according to SERS. Three of those times the system was at risk of total failure. All of the parts used for repairs will no longer be built in the next three years. Some are already not being manufactured.
County leaders announced a plan Thursday afternoon to upgrade to P25 digital radios that would serve 50 police and fire agencies from Edmonds to Darrington. This year voters will likely see a measure on the ballot to fund new radios.
The cost to go digital? It’s $70 million to $75 million, according to estimates from a consulting firm, Stantec, that was hired three years ago.
State law allows the fix to be funded by a new sales tax or a property tax increase. The letter from the fire chiefs’ association, for example, suggested a sales tax of one-tenth of 1 percent, or about one cent for every $10. This was the model used by Pierce County to fund a new dispatch system in 2011. Another option would be a property tax increase, like the $246 million plan approved by two-thirds of King County voters in a special election in 2015.
Large counties south of Snohomish already use digital radios. An upgrade would make it easier for first-responders to communicate with their agencies, in the event of a major catastrophe.
The upgrade would aim to fill gaps on the radio coverage map, like those around Verlot, Machias and the western shoreline of the county. Exactly where new towers would be built would depend on the vendor’s bid.
A request for bids was put out in fall 2017, with a deadline for proposals in late February. A bidder could be chosen by March.
So far four vendors have shown an interest, according to SERS, a public government agency with offices in Marysville. The agency oversees about $25 million in radios, radio towers and public safety gear.
Each year Snohomish County dispatchers take about 1 million emergency calls. Two regional dispatch centers, SNOPAC and SNOCOM, voted to merge last year.