All five jurisdictions discussing the regionalization of emergency communications in the Tri-Cities have approved -- or are expected to soon -- a pact that could pave the way for the long-discussed move.
Once all have signed off, a consultant will be hired using a state grant to design a road map for forming a regional system in Benton and Franklin counties.
That hiring is expected to happen "as close to immediately after signatures as we can manage," said Franklin County Commissioner Brad Peck, who's part of the steering committee that's been working for months on regionalization.
The interlocal agreement doesn't guarantee the jurisdictions will form a regional system; it's intended to lay out details to help them decide whether to move ahead.
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It does provide a timeline to aim for, including having a cost-benefit analysis prepared by July. If the jurisdictions opt to go forward with regionalization, a bicounty public safety answering point, or call center, could be operating by year's end, with "complete migration to a regional system" by the end of 2014, the pact says.
The steering committee, with a representative from each jurisdiction, will "provide direction in the design of the plan," and an advisory committee of law enforcement and fire officials will provide input on matters including "design, cost allocations, technical considerations and resources required to implement the plan," the agreement says.
Benton County commissioners and the city councils in Richland, Pasco and Kennewick recently signed off on the pact. Franklin County commissioners are expected to do so this week. They didn't vote on it at their meeting last week to give county legal staff time to review it, but signaled they support the concept of regionalization and want a road map for the process.
Today, there are separate dispatch centers in Benton and Franklin counties, and law enforcement in the two counties use different radio systems -- 800 megahertz in Benton County and VHF in Franklin County.
That can cause issues communicating, officials have said. Cellphone calls also sometimes bounce to the wrong dispatch center, which can add time in emergency situations when every second counts.
The model of regionalization is one more jurisdictions are moving toward, said Gary Crutchfield, Pasco's city manager, who's also part of the steering committee.
Pierce County, for example, has the newly created South Sound 911 that includes several jurisdictions, among them Tacoma.
Merging the emergency communications systems in Benton and Franklin counties has been discussed for years. One study, by the consulting firm eGov, suggested regionalization could save money and improve services.
Benton and Franklin counties in late 2011 agreed to use grant money for a separate feasibility study. The study didn't happen, and instead a version of the latest interlocal agreement came forward in recent months.
It drew concern from Benton County officials, who felt it committed the jurisdictions to a merger.
Eventually, revisions were hammered out.
Benton County also proposed language specifying the cost-benefit analysis would include looking at how the county, Richland and Kennewick would be compensated for money they've already spent on their upgraded radio system, although that didn't make the final version. The pact says the analysis will include "the value of existing system infrastructure."
Crutchfield said he's pleased the agreement is on the cusp of approval.
"We've all been standing on the shore looking at the boat, wondering how we'll make it go. It's good we're in the boat," he said. "I'm cautiously optimistic that once we go through all the steps, that will clear the path for a regionalized system."