A plan to consolidate 911 dispatch operations in Benton and Franklin counties and create a better, more advanced emergency communications and records system got an endorsement this week from Benton County commissioners.
The vote Tuesday was unanimous, before a standing-room only crowd that included several Tri-City law enforcement officials.
“We’re trying to make a positive influence in the community and trying to support law enforcement,” said Jim Beaver, commission chairman.
The new regional system isn’t yet a done deal, but the action by commissioners represents a significant step in that direction. Franklin County commissioners already have agreed by consensus to move forward to an interlocal agreement.
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That agreement, which would create the new system called the Multi-Agency Three Rivers Information and Communication Services, or MATRICS, is expected to go to both sets of county commissioners and the city councils in Kennewick, Pasco and Richland before year’s end.
Benton and Franklin counties currently have separate 911 dispatch centers, and law enforcement in the two counties use different radio systems — 800 megahertz in Benton County and VHF in Franklin County.
That disjointed arrangement has led to misdirected 911 calls and other communication problems among police agencies.
Last month, a standoff in Pasco highlighted the risk of those communication issues.
A suspect fired dozens of rounds, but officers from Benton County who rushed across the river to help couldn’t communicate with Pasco police as they were arriving at the scene, and some ended up in the line of fire. A Kennewick officer almost was shot.
The local Fraternal Order of Police sent a letter calling for immediate progress on consolidation.
The MATRICS business plan, presented Tuesday to Benton commissioners by representatives from Sciens Consulting, covers a five year period.
After implementation via approval of the business plan and interlocal agreement, consolidation of the dispatch centers would happen. That phase would be followed by a technology modernization phase.
The new system would require an estimated $9.4 million in one-time investment, largely for technology upgrades. The counties and cities wouldn’t have to shell out extra money -- the cost could be covered by pooling existing revenue sources, Sciens representatives said.
They also said the new system would lead to an estimated $1.5 million in savings in staffing and maintenance costs over five years.
MATRICS would have an executive board with voting representatives from all the member jurisdictions. The board would be charged with duties including overseeing the budget.
An executive director would be hired to oversee day-to-day operations, and the business plan also provides for advisery and ad hoc committees.
The primary operations and data centers would be at the Benton County Emergency Services facility on Truman Avenue in Richland.
The secondary operations center would be at the Franklin County dispatch center, and the secondary data center would be at the Richland city shops, according to the business plan.
Under the plan, the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office and Pasco Police Department could move to the 800 megahertz radio system. Pasco Police Chief Bob Metzger said his agency would do so. The 800 megahertz system is superior and would provide better coverage in his city, he said.
Metzger was in the audience Tuesday and praised commissioners’ action, saying, “It’s definitely the right decision. I think we all know (regionalization) is the right thing to do.”
Franklin County Sheriff Richard Lathim has said VHF is better for his agency, and the sheriff’s office would lose coverage in parts of the county if it moved to 800 megahertz.
Even with Franklin County remaining on VHF, the communication issues could be addressed in MATRICS through a “hard patch” allowing officers on the different networks to talk directly, the consultants told the Herald.
The idea of a regional system has been discussed for years, and a study from about three years ago found the move could save money and improve service. A state grant is paying for the most recent consulting work.
w Sara Schilling: 509-582-1529; email@example.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald