Emergency radio system fix in works

The network, which is widely agreed to be badly in need of an update, was built in the 1990s.


WALLA WALLA -- Officials and emergency responders have started brainstorming ways to find fixes, both short and long-term, for Walla Walla County's emergency radio network.

At a Monday workshop chaired by county commissioners, there was no dispute the system is either approaching or already at the breaking point.

Rocky Eastman, advisory board chairman and chief of Fire District 4, said the current radio system that was built in the mid-1990s is at a stage where "the pace of repairs has outstripped the resources" to maintain it. "In the past 12 months, things have come to a head," he said.

For the immediate future, the parts most in need of repair or replacement are the transmitting equipment and the "control architecture," which coordinates the system, Eastman said.

The microwave system that sends radio traffic from the 911 center to transmitter sites is fairly new and is functioning well, officials said.

Monday's work session ended with agreements to have two bodies begin working on different parts of the problem.

One group, the Emergency Management and Communications Advisory Board, will work on what is needed to fix the aging radio system and what that will cost. At the same time, county commissioners will put together a group consisting of one member and one elected official from each of the agencies now using the system.

That group will work on a method to fairly assess how much each user should pay to operate and maintain the network as well as save toward its replacement.

Commissioners Greg Tompkins, Perry Dozier and Gregg Loney also said in the meantime they will begin finding a way to provide approximately $212,000 needed to fix the control architecture, with the money to be repaid either with a grant or through user fees.

But while the current system can be fixed to serve everyone's needs for the immediate future, those at the workshop agreed a plan to provide for a complete overhaul is vital.

"The point is, over the long run, we need a long-term plan to replace what we've got now," said Steve Ruley, public safety communication manager for WESCOM, the organization in charge of managing emergency dispatch communications throughout the county.

And although Walla Walla County technically owns the system, all the users will need to come together to find a way to fund a new network, said Bob Clendaniel, chief of county Fire District 8.

"The county is the owner," he told commissioners, "You have the title, but it's for a 1978 Toyota Corolla. I think we realize it's not your responsibility to buy a new car."

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318.

What's wrong with the system

The Walla Walla County emergency radio system was engineered and designed in the mid-1990s. The original design called for a number of remote transmitter sites throughout the county to provide adequate coverage. Solely because of funding considerations, two of the five recommended sites were never developed or implemented. The three sites chosen were intenteded to provide the most coverage possible with the limited funding available, but still left some significant gaps in coverage within the system. A new site is now being constructed in Walla Walla to aid coverage.

The current system infrastructure is now about 14 years old and the company that provided the original system no longer supports it. This means replacement parts are no longer manufactured. At present, the system has been kept running by acquiring available stocks of spare replacement parts, but that is no longer possible. There are also no technicians trained in this particular simulcast technology arrangement. (The average life of radio components is about seven years before replacements are typically needed.)

An unfunded federal mandate has been in place for several years that requires all public safety radios in the VHF-Hi band (which includes Walla Walla County) to convert to a "narrow band" format no later than Dec. 31, 2012. Fortunately, the bulk of the emergency radio equipment in Walla Walla County can be converted to narrowband operation, although that will require a radio technician to make changes on each and every vehicle, system and portable radio in the system. Converting to narrow band will also result in reduced coverage area for the radios.

Source: Steven Ruley, WESCOM public safety communications manager


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