Regional emergency communications system another step closer

Tri-City HeraldOctober 24, 2013 

Benton and Franklin county commissioners on Thursday took another step toward a regional emergency communications and records system that would improve safety and potentially save $500,000 a year.

They agreed to ask a consultant to develop a detailed design after a 11⁄2-hour meeting at Pasco City Hall.

The session was standing-room only, with dozens of law enforcement and fire officials from around the two counties on hand to hear a consultant’s preliminary report on regionalization — an idea that’s been discussed locally for years.

Afterward, one of the Tri-Cities’ top police leaders told the Herald that commissioners made the right call.

“This is huge for us,” said Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg. “This is a great next step.”

Pasco Fire Chief Bob Gear said regionalization “is the right thing to do” for public safety. If it comes to pass, it will be “probably one of the most important things that ever happened in my career,” he added. Sciens Consulting, also known as eGov, prepared the conceptual design report and will develop the more detailed plan. The Texas-based firm’s work is covered by a state grant.

Commissioners in both counties and the city councils in Richland, Pasco and Kennewick earlier this year approved a pact that called for using a consultant to help design a consolidated emergency communications system plan.

Currently, the two counties have separate 911 dispatch centers, and cellphone calls at times go to the wrong one, adding time in emergency situations where seconds count, officials have said. Law enforcement in the two counties also use different radio systems, leading to communication issues.

“Between Richland and Kennewick, it’s easy for us to communicate with each other because we’re on the same radio system,” Hohenberg said. “We don’t have that same luxury on the Franklin County side. If a Pasco officer is in pursuit and comes into Kennewick, or vice-versa, oftentimes we have a lot of communication issues, which puts our officers in harm’s way.”

Fire departments use the same kinds of radios but also have interoperability issues.

The consolidated system would address the problem of misdirected cellphone calls and also the interagency communication issues, consultants said Thursday.

The conceptual design envisions a primary operations center and data center at the existing dispatch facility in Benton County, and a secondary or backup operations center at the Franklin County dispatch facility in Pasco. A secondary data center would be in another location that hasn’t been identified.

The conceptual plan envisions a smaller staff — 50 employees compared with about 58 today between the two counties and the Bi-County Police Information Network.

One-time startup costs would be needed, the conceptual report said.

When it comes to operations costs, Stephen Gousie of eGov told the Herald that regionalization could result in about $500,000 in savings a year. Commissioners from the two counties approved in separate votes moving onto the detailed design phase. Franklin County Commissioner Bob Koch was absent.

Benton County Commissioner Jerome Delvin said during the meeting that he doesn’t want the public to count too much on significant savings, noting employee costs rise over time. “I think what we need to articulate is that it is going to be improved service — improved services to the public and to the people who use the system on a daily basis,” he said.

Franklin County Commissioner Brad Peck said the driving force is to improve the capacity and reliability of the local emergency communications system. If savings are gained, he said, “I think we ought to be leaning very hard in the direction of banking those for major capital investments as new technologies come out, because that’s sure to happen and sure to be expensive.”

Gousie said he expects the detailed design to be finished by March or April.

-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; sschilling@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald

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