South Sound 911 headed to November ballot

Pierce County voters will be asked in November to establish an emergency communications system that proponents say will improve safety for every resident and first responder. The Pierce County Council voted 5-2 on Tuesday to send the measure to the Nov. 8 General Election ballot. If voters approve the funding, a new agency called South Sound 911 will be created to update and improve critical communications equipment for participating law enforcement and fire agencies, particularly in light of looming federal mandates.

Among other things, South Sound 911 is designed to assist agencies in complying with Federal Communications Commission requirements that reduce the operating bandwidth for first responders nationwide by Jan. 1, 2013. That means new radios for some agencies, such as the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, and new software for others. The proposal also would replace three outdated dispatch centers — the Law Enforcement Support Agency and the two facilities operated by Tacoma Fire and West Pierce Fire and Rescue — with two new facilities (one each for police and fire).

South Sound 911 would be funded by the existing Enhanced 911 tax (20 cents per line), an increase of one-tenth of 1 percent in the sales tax (1 penny on a $10 purchase) and agency fees and grants. The money would be bonded to pay for radios and two dispatch facilities, as well as contribute to the operating budget.

“I compare our current radio system to a piece of Swiss cheese: there are areas of Pierce County that are ‘holes’ where we cannot send or receive radio transmissions,” Sheriff Paul Pastor said. “This proposal not only complies with the federal mandate, but it also eliminates the patchwork of radio systems around Pierce County that delays direct contact among first responders.”

The following entities have signed the interlocal agreement that would set up governance of the new agency: Pierce County Executive’s Office, Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, Tacoma Police Department, Tacoma Fire Department, Lakewood Police Department and West Pierce Fire and Rescue. Including the communities that contract for services with those agencies, South Sound 911 directly affects 99 percent of commissioned fire fighters and 83.5 percent of commissioned law enforcement officers in Pierce County.