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Counties address old communications system

Several local agencies are working to address a radio communications system they say is no longer meeting the needs of Okanogan and Ferry counties.

Called “Unified Communications,” the project entails building a new, expanded two-way radio network to help more than 80 law enforcement, fire, emergency medical services, utilities, hospitals, schools and other agencies communicate with one another.

The project is “to bring together a lot of disparate networks that are out there,” said Mike Worden, the chief of special operations and communications for the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office.

Adcomm Engineering Co., of Bothell, will conduct a study to assess the current infrastructure, how well it works and what resources are needed to sustain it, and recommend a course of action.

The study will begin in January and conclude in August.

Agencies operate on two different radio frequencies, ultra-high frequency (UHF) and very high frequency (VHF). Those using UHF can’t communicate with agencies using VHF, and vice versa, Worden said.

“As I’ve learned the position and heard the complaints or frustrations of the fire, EMS and police agencies, and tried to truly understand not just the symptoms of their complaints but what’s causing those complaints, you start to see the system bottlenecks,” he said. “There’s not enough radio airtime for all of the firemen’s traffic and all the EMS traffic and all the law enforcement traffic to happen at once.”

He cited the July 2012 storm in Ferry County as an example. The crews in both counties didn’t have radios that worked together, and three days after the storm they were given radios that boosted productivity by an estimated 30 percent.

“Surviving is not the same thing as succeeding through an event. I want to move more toward succeeding through events,” he said.

The current systems can also be ill-equipped to handle disasters, Worden said. The Colville Confederated Tribes are working on their own project and weren’t able to wait for the study to be completed, Worden said.

“They’ve been very open to it, and that’s been good to hear, and hopefully down the road we can bring our two systems together,” he said.

Other interested participants in the project include a railroad, a local Internet provider, Okanogan County Transportation and Nutrition and Aero Methow Rescue Service.

The new system would be especially beneficial to emergency medical services agencies such as Aero Methow, Worden said, because if an ambulance is bringing a patient to a hospital, the crew cannot release the patient’s name or any information about them over the radio due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

With a new system, a secure line of communication could be installed so a hospital can prepare for the patient before the ambulance arrives, Worden said.

The Okanogan County Public Utility District has been discussing Unified Communications with the Sheriff’s Office and other agencies for three or four years, General Manager John Grubich said.

“We’re in the same situation,” he said. “We want to make sure we can communicate with our crews the same way they need to communicate with theirs. There’s all these little barriers to really operating efficiently.”

Worden said funding for the project will be a “major obstacle” if the agencies decide to move forward with it.

Much of the current infrastructure was installed by each agency 20-30 years ago, he said.

Okanogan County Commissioner Jim DeTro said Unified Communications is a good idea.

“We’ve got some really, really archaic and fundamentally basic, old systems that are still in use and these systems don’t talk to each other,” he said. “(The new system) would streamline the situation, and it would kind of bring us back into the 21st century as far as communication is concerned.

“It’s a very forward-thinking situation and it’s going to put us ahead of the curve.”

Worden pointed out another future need – a new 911 dispatch center.

The current center is located next to the county jail, 149 N. Fourth Ave.

In addition, the center isn’t able to add more dispatcher positions because the building is at capacity.

A new building would provide the room to expand and backup communications, Worden said.

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