Walla Walla County squelches emergency radio woes

Tom Deccio, shift supervisor, sits at one of the consoles at the Walla Walla Emergency Communications Center. A major overhaul of the entire emergency radio system has been accomplished since the system was nearly at a breaking point at the start of 2012.

Tom Deccio, shift supervisor, sits at one of the consoles at the Walla Walla Emergency Communications Center. A major overhaul of the entire emergency radio system has been accomplished since the system was nearly at a breaking point at the start of 2012. Photo by Andy Porter.

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911 center certified by National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

By ANDY PORTER

of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin

WALLA WALLA — Walla Walla County’s 911 center has been certified as a partner by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

The certification means the center’s personnel “have the procedures and protocols in place that meet the national standards” to respond to calls regarding missing, abducted or exploited children, said Steve Ruley, Walla Walla 911 center manager.

To achieve certification, dispatch center staff had to complete numerous hours of enhanced specialized training to be better prepared to take calls involving missing or abducted children.

“Each of our dispatchers have been specially trained on these critical procedures and our regional law enforcement agencies have also agreed to meet these national standards,” Ruley said. “We have actually been working in accordance with these standards for quite some time, but this partnership formalizes the process.”

The Walla Walla Emergency Services Communication Center has 12 call takers and three supervisors and trainers who have attended the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children 911 call center courses, Ruley said.

WALLA WALLA — Once at or near the breaking point 18 months ago, Walla Walla County’s emergency radio system has been brought back to health after a major overhaul.

But the effort to restore it was not without its drama, said Steve Ruley, manager for the Walla Walla Emergency Services Communications Center.

Designed and built in the mid-1990s, the system’s problems came to a head at the start of 2012 after lightning strikes at two repeater sites in May 2011 left the system crippled. Radio coverage was so poor that county Fire District 5 in Burbank had to use Franklin County dispatch to communicate, Ruley said.

Apart from the lightning damage, age was also taking its toll on the system. Replacement parts for the original components were no longer being manufactured and although the system had been kept running by acquiring available spare parts, by the start of 2012 that approach was no longer possible.

Fortunately, insurance coverage helped to mostly pay for installation of a new microwave relay system covering the entire county, Ruley said. Costs for mitigating the lightning damage on the microwave system came to $254,072, Ruley said. Of that, $249,072 was paid by insurance and there was a $5,000 deductible cost that was paid by user funds.

Unfortunately, as that issue was resolved, there was a subsequent failure in the equipment that provided simultaneous broadcast of messages by more than one transmitter on a single frequency.

Again, because that equipment was old and obsolete, that system had to be replaced by new technology. County commissioners approved an emergency loan of $211,608 to pay for the project and those funds were repaid in three installments out of user fund cash reserves that accrue over time.

However “that essentially depleted all of the available cash reserves for maintenance and repairs with one major problem remaining,” Ruley said.

The problem was all of the transmitters and receivers that comprised the “backbone” of the system were well past their life expectancy and were becoming subject to frequent failure. And attempts to obtain grants were, up to this year, unsuccessful.

Just when it appeared all hope was lost, Ruley said, an “unbelievable opportunity” appeared in late March via Olivia Hollowwa, a grant coordinator with the Emergency Management Division of the Washington State Military Division.

“One of the most helpful people we have ever dealt with in navigating the complex grant process,” he said.

Hollowwa told Ruley money to replace the aging transmitters and receivers, a total of $244,000, was available because several recipients in a previous grant program had been unable to expend their funding.

But there was a catch. All needed equipment had to be purchased, received, installed and operational by the end of May or there would be no funding paid.

What happened next, Ruley said, “was one of those rare times when things happened to come together with the concerted efforts of many people and many levels of government and private business.”

Hurdles included submitting a formal grant application, then gaining state approval, federal approval and local approval all before the equipment could even be ordered.

Next came the actual installation which was done by Tait Communications.

“By working closely with our system engineer at Adcomm Engineering, we were able to meet the grant deadline with one day to spare,” Ruley said.

Total costs on all the repairs and replacements have been approximately $747,144 since 2011, with $493,072 paid by insurance and grant funds and $211,608 paid out of user fees, Ruley said.

“In other words, almost 72 percent of the costs came from sources other than user fees,” he said.

Still more aid has been obtained by WESCOM working with the state E-911 Office in Tacoma to replace the outdated time synchronizer for the system and add a 24-hour logging recorder, a backup generator and an uninterruptible power supply, Ruley said.

But even with all that, Ruley said there is still much more to be accomplished, such as adding backup emergency power sources at remote sites. With tight budgets, grants are the best hope for finding funds for further improvements, he said.

“While our chances of getting grant funding are relatively small, if we don’t apply, our chances are zero, so we will keep trying,” he said.

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

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