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Washington State country considering levy to fund new emergency-radio network

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Emergency communicationWashington State county considering levy to fund new emergency-radio network

Published 22 April 2015

Voters in King County, Washington, which includes Seattle, will be asked in a special 28 April election to approve a levy for a new emergency-radio network to expand coverage throughout the county and replace outdated equipment used by police, fire, medical, and other emergency personnel. The levywould raise $246 million over nine years and cost $0.07 per $1,000 of assessed property valuation beginning in 2016. The levy proposed would increase the number of transmission towers from twenty-six to forty-six and replace 19,000 radios and 117 dispatch consoles.

Voters in King County, Washington, which includes Seattle, will be asked in a special 28 April election to approve a levy for a new emergency-radio network to expand coverage throughout the county and replace outdated equipment used by police, fire, medical, and other emergency personnel.

Last June, a gunman entered a Seattle Pacific University building killing one student and injuring two others. Police on the scene for search and rescue had trouble communicating with each other and with dispatchers because the thick-walled building stood in the shadow of Queen Anne Hill. “Public-safety radios should be the last thing you worry about in an emergency. At SPU, the radios got in the way,” said Dick Reed, a former director of the Seattle Police Department’s 911 center and a supporter of the ballot measure.

The levy would raise $246 million over nine years and cost $0.07 per $1,000 of assessed property valuation beginning in 2016. According to the Seattle Times, the owner of a median-priced King County home — $378,000 — would pay about $26.46 a year.

King County’s current emergency-radio network was built in the mid-1990s to serve a smaller population spread over a smaller area. Now that the area has grown, emergency workers are experiencing gaps in coverage, but not just in rural areas, but in downtown Seattle, where high-rise buildings interfere with the current radio signals. “There are fairly big places where there is no coverage today,” said David Mendel, emergency-radio-system project director for King County.

The levy proposed would increase the number of transmission towers from twenty-six to forty-six and replace 19,000 radios and 117 dispatch consoles. The upgrade would expand coverage in the county from 94 percent to 97 percent. “It’s a crucial tool in keeping the public safe,” Mendel said.

Adding more urgency to replace the current emergency-radio network is the deadline placed by Motorola, the network contractor, which will not support the current system after 2018. The new contract issued to Motorola would provide for upgraded equipment throughout its expected twenty-year life. Motorola has been criticized in the past for its dominance of emergency radio systems used in the country, but Mendel said Motorola won the bid based on its abilities to meet the requirements set by King County.

Some fire districts oppose the levy, worried that the measure could reduce their ability to collect taxes within the constitutionally mandated levy limits. Mark Thompson, a commissioner for South King Fire District, said that could force some fire districts to cut their budgets and lay off firefighters. “We totally support the need for the new radio system. The new one provides much better service. But taxes in fire districts that voters have already approved could be cut. The fire districts could take a hit,” Thompson said. The Metropolitan King County Council is considering an interlocal agreement that would protect the fire districts from adverse effects from the proposed levy. The levy does include $1 million per year to compensate the fire districts for any lost tax revenues.

The levy under “Proposition One” requires a simple majority vote to pass, and is supported by King County Sheriff John Urquhart, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, King County Executive Dow Constantine, and dozens of local police and fire departments. “We know there are gaps throughout the county,” said Urquhart. “The technology is antiquated. We’re not to baling wire and duct tape yet, but we’re getting close.” “Every day, going forward, the need (for updated radio networks) becomes more critical,” Urquhart said.

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