Washington County Lobbies State for 911 System Tax Authority

The 30-year-old, analog dispatch system currently used by Thurston County is “weak and needs to be replaced,” officials say, but those changes are expected to cost around $30 million.

by Abby Spegman, The Olympian / February 6, 2019
Capitol building in Olympia, Wash. Shutterstock

(TNS) — Leaders at Washington's Thurston County’s 911 dispatch center say the radio system that emergency responders use to talk to dispatchers and each other is outdated and they are asking state lawmakers for the ability to collect more sales tax to pay for a $30 million upgrade.

TCOMM 911 handles emergency calls and dispatches first responders in Thurston County with the exception of Washington State Patrol. It also owns and operates the county’s public safety radio system.

Olympia Fire Chief Gregory Wright told a Senate committee last week that Thurston County crews are using the same radio technology that was around when Wright started his career.

“The one thing that all fire, EMS and law enforcement officials know is that our communications infrastructure is weak and needs to be replaced. ..,” he said. “Everything else that we do has changed, but we’re still using old technology.”

Reception is a problem in crowded areas, in brick, steel or concrete structures, and in hilly areas, Wright said. The 30-year-old analog system also is not compatible with digital systems used by nearby agencies.

That was an issue in the response to the 2017 Amtrak train derailment on Interstate 5. Crews from Thurston and Pierce counties and Joint Base Lewis-McChord all responded but had trouble communicating with each other.

“[We had] literally three people sitting in one van talking to their dispatchers and then to the other two guys,” TCOMM 911 Executive Director Keith Flewelling told The Olympian.

Currently counties can collect a voter-approved local sales and use tax of 0.1 percent to fund emergency communication systems and facilities. Legislation proposed this year would raise the limit to 0.2 percent.

It would be up to county commissioners to put an increase on the ballot and voters to approve or reject it.

Thurston County voters approved the 0.1 percent sales tax in 2002, but that isn’t enough to cover major capital improvements such as a new radio system, Flewelling said.

In 2008, TCOMM 911 officials considered replacing the system for about $42 million but opted instead to make minimum changes to meet requirements set by the Federal Communications Commission for about $3 million.

This time, officials are looking to partner with Washington State Patrol to use some of its radio infrastructure.

The option to collect more taxes would be available to all counties. At the Senate hearing, a Grays Harbor County commissioner said the increase could help pay for new radio towers there as well.

©2019 The Olympian (Olympia, Wash.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.