911 Center

Thurston County voters will decide this November whether to double the sales and use tax that funds emergency communication systems and facilities — a measure that Thurston 911 Communications says is necessary to replace outdated radio equipment.

The Thurston County Board of Commissioners voted to include the measure on the November ballot, at the request of TCOMM. It would increase the current tax from one-tenth of one percent to two-tenths of one percent — an extra penny for each $10 purchase.

TCOMM says it needs to replace its 40-year-old analog public safety radio system, the deficiencies of which were exposed during the Amtrak train derailment in December of 2017 — causing difficulties in coordinating with other agencies.

“The replacement system will address capacity, coverage and interoperable communications problems experienced with the current analog system,” the agency said in a release. “Every first responder agency in the county, including all city and county fire districts, use the TCOMM 911 radio system, while other agencies around the state and in neighboring counties are currently using digital radio systems.”

The system replacement will be a “multimillion-dollar project,” TCOMM said.

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(1) comment

Bald-Hill-Reader

For the voters, there are tens of millions of tax dollars at stake. For the first responders, there is safety and quality of service at stake. To say that the current system is 40 years old is misleading at best. The frequencies in use and their licenses do indeed date back that far. However, the rest of the story is that the current system has grown and been updated frequently. It uses VHF high band (150 MHz), which is widely considered to be the best of the frequency blocks available and the most desired. It is best suited to large geographic areas with hilly land contours. The proposed new system will be in the 700 MHz band. To provide comparably complete, seamless service in our rural, hilly areas will require many additional tower sites. Frequencies in the 700 MHz band do not penetrate into valleys and over ridge-tops anything like as well as the VHF high band. With the huge amount of money being planned for this major undertaking, those additional tower sites should be possible; the snag is that there are groups of citizens that have been very successful at shooting down even simple, low-power cell sites. The coverage of a 700 MHz system will be comparable to cell service. How's the cell coverage in you area? Do you want your first responders to have similarly imperfect communications? The proposed system also claims the capability of a large number of "talk groups" or "channels," which sounds great and like the new system would be less congested. These are virtual (not real) channels and there will still be a very definite limitation in the number of simultaneous conversations because there will still be only a small number of actual physical channels. Nearby similarly situated counties that have made the change are disgusted with and frustrated by the poor performance of their new 700 MHz systems. We need to look into the options, benefits, drawbacks and costs before voting to make this move, not because of the cost but because of the degradation in the reliability of this essential service.

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