Snohomish County’s emergency radio system is nearly at its expiration date and a 0.1 percent sales tax increase on this November’s ballot would allow for a replacement of that system.
The Snohomish County Emergency Radio System (SERS) is an organization which runs and maintains the system, which helps coordinate communication between 911 dispatchers and local police officers, firefighters and other emergency services.
If passed the funds would go to Snohomish County, however that money can only be used for emergency communication services by state law.
SERS would likely be the biggest priority for those funds, said Brad Steiner, executive director for the organization.
“It really is for everyone. Since we’re the primary communication service we’re likely first on the list, but it’s not just for us,” he said.
In the future, other jurisdictions could request some of those funds for special projects, said Steiner.
The current radio system was first purchased in 2001.
“While we have done a couple of upgrades, there’s only been minimal work done,” said Steiner.
“Now we’re at the point where the majority of the system is going to run into its expiration date,” he said.
Because of the age of the system, replacement parts are getting harder to acquire.
“If I wanted to buy a new radio, and I’m talking here about the things that we put on the mountaintops, our manufacturer doesn’t make them anymore,” said Steiner.
They have been informed that in 2020 their manufacturer will not be able to provide any more spare parts, he said.
“So if something were to break, we’re on our own,” said Steiner.
The current radio system sometimes has problems as well, according to local officials.
“We work off a system that is almost 20 years old and that has shown some wear and tear and some gaps,” said Marysville Fire District Fire Chief Martin McFalls.
He pointed to the Big Four Ice Caves collapse in 2016.
“There were some communication issues during that rescue because of the radio tower,” he said.
Jonathan Ventura, Arlington’s Police Chief, also said they have seen occasional failures.
“Not to cry wolf, but we are starting to see critical failures in the system,” he said.
“There have been times we’ve lost communications, now, thankfully, we still have redundancies so we’ve always been able to restore it fairly quickly, but that is a problem,” he said.
A new radio system would likely be a big technological upgrade for local emergency responders as well.
“You think back to the kinds of computers Apple was making in 2001 and they were very different, just for example,” said Steiner.
“Like most of technology, it has only gotten better over the last 20 years,” said Ventura.
Ventura said that it is a vital part of emergency response that needs to be replaced, although he understands many community members are tired of taxes.
“It is a very expensive system and people are taxed to death so I sympathize with that,” he said.
“There are some people who say to me ‘well, we should have planned our budget 20 years ago to replace this,’ and I understand that viewpoint,” he said.
Steiner said that SERS works through approximately 40 different agencies throughout the county.
“Working with those 40 agencies to collect for a rainy day fund is simply impossible to coordinate,” he said.
SERS does not have the power to force collection and the different emergency response departments vary wildly in size, budget and financial stability, said Steiner.
If passed the tax will last indefinitely, which Steiner said will allow the organization to create a reserve fund for future replacements.
“By moving to something we can plan with, we can do more than we have ever in the past,” he said.
If not passed, the system will still likely need to be replaced, and Steiner said the funding option most likely would be requesting funds from the Snohomish County emergency response departments.
“It’s going to fall back on the individual agencies to collect and pay for this and that is going to be a humongous burden,” said McFalls.
With the tax proposition “it will be paid for by every user in the county,” he said.
Much of the cost for a new system comes from the fact that you can’t replace a single component, said Steiner, and it will need to be replaced all at once.
If the proposition passes, Steiner said it will still take about three years to completely install the new system.
Ballots for this November’s election are scheduled to be mailed out on Oct. 18 and are due by Nov. 6.