sheriff car

Coronavirus shutdown slows replacement work

OKANOGAN – Work to improve Okanogan County’s emergency communications network is proceeding, but has hit a bump because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last fall, Okanogan County voters approved a 0.2 percent sales tax increase to pay for upgrades to hardware upgrades for the dispatch and communications system that links police, fire and emergency medical service agencies county-wide.

Right after the measure was approved last fall, a Dispatch Advisory Committee was established with representation from cities, the county, police fire and EMS providers, said Mike Worden, chief deputy of special operations/communications for the sheriff’s office.

“This group is steering the work to improve emergency communications,” he said. “Prior to COVID-19 and associated shutdowns we completed a survey of agencies and agency users seeking their input as to features and functionality needed to accomplish their mission more effectively.”

After receiving the responses, the sheriff’s office began drafting a request for proposals for design and implementation of the improvements.

But, in the wake of coronavirus shutdowns, “we need to monitor how revenue projections change and what grant opportunities are available so we make financially responsible decisions,” Worden said.

He said at some point the sheriff’s website will have updates on project progress.

State law allows counties to seek voter approval for a sales tax that would be used “solely for the purpose of providing funds for costs associated with financing, design, acquisition, construction, equipping, operating, maintaining, remodeling, repairing, re-equipping, and improvement of emergency communication systems,” said the county commissioners’ 2019 resolution putting the measure on the ballot.

The money will be used to replace aged network hardware, improve network capacity and efficiency, offset dispatch operational cost, create a set-aside replacement fund and plan a dispatch facility.

Last fall, Worden said the county’s emergency services communications infrastructure is nearing the end of its life span and needs significant upgrades. Critical components within the system ceased production in 2011 and maintenance support will discontinue in 2020.

“The degradation of performance increases the risk to the public in that, a system failure is increasingly more likely,” he said. “We need to take action to improve on the age of the equipment. The current system is as basic and inefficient as you can have.”

Fire services, emergency medical services and law enforcement all use the same aging, single-channel communications system, which has not seen significant upgrading since the early 1970s.

The new system would have the capacity of four channels – one each for fire, medial, law enforcement and public works.

The sheriff’s office noted in a pre-vote social media post that “We are the only county in Washington with the challenge of providing radio communications covering four mountain passes crossed by state highways. Of those four mountain passes (Washington Pass, Loup Loup Pass, Disautel Pass, Wauconda Pass), we provide radio communications coverage that first responders need on both sides of three of these mountain passes.”

In 2019, telephone calls to 911 accounted for a quarter of the phone traffic in and out of the sheriff’s office, according to year-end statistics.

Incoming 911 calls totaled 21,064, while total calls were 83,188. Of those that were not 911 calls, 40,496 were incoming, 20,257 were outgoing and 1,171 were internal.

In 2018, the dispatch center fielded 86,474 phone calls. Among those were 21,881 calls to 911 and 64,593 administrative calls.

Incoming calls in 2018 totaled 64,027, with 42,146 of them being administrative. Outgoing calls numbered 17,903, all of them administrative, while there were 4,544 internal calls.

The sheriff’s office dispatched personnel for 31,020 incidents for all agencies in 2019, down from 31,604 the previous year.

Of the total for 2019, 25,224 were for law enforcement, 4,075 were EMS and 1,465 were for fire agencies.

In other recent years, incidents dispatched totaled 29,677 in 2017, 30,312 in 2016, 29,255 in 2015, 28,392 in 2014 and 27,400 in 2013.

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