King County voters are being asked to approve a levy to build an upgraded emergency-radio network to serve first responders, in a special election April 28.
When a gunman entered a Seattle Pacific University building last June, killing one student and wounding two others, police trying to search and secure the scene had trouble communicating with each other and with dispatchers because the thick-walled building stood in the shadow of Queen Anne Hill, a double barrier for an aging public-safety radio system.
In a special April 28 election, King County voters will be asked to approve a levy for a new, upgraded emergency-radio network to expand coverage throughout the county and replace outdated equipment used daily by police, fire, Medic 1 and other first responders.
“Public-safety radios should be the last thing you worry about in an emergency. At SPU, the radios got in the way,” said Dick Reed, a former director of the Seattle Police Department’s 911 center and a supporter of the ballot measure.
The levy would raise $246 million over nine years and cost $0.07 per $1,000 assessed property value. The owner of a median-priced King County home — $378,000 — would pay about $26.46 a year.
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The county’s current emergency-radio network was built in the mid-1990s to serve a smaller population spread over a smaller area, said David Mendel, emergency-radio-system project director for King County. He said there are gaps in coverage not just in some rural areas, but in downtown Seattle where high-rise buildings interfere with the current radio signals.
Some other cities have spotty reception, including Shoreline, Federal Way and Newcastle.
“There are fairly big places where there is no coverage today,” Mendel said.
The levy would increase the number of transmission towers from 26 to 46 and replace 19,000 radios and 117 dispatch consoles, Mendel said. The upgrade would expand coverage in the county from about 94 percent to 97 percent.
And, Mendel said, the system is used every day, for every call, by police, firefighters and emergency medical crews — more than 100 million uses of the system per year.
“It’s a crucial tool in keeping the public safe,” he said.
The county is also under a deadline. The network contractor, Motorola, won’t support the current system after 2018. Mendel said the new contract, won by Motorola, would provide for upgraded equipment throughout its expected 20-year life.
Proposition 1, which takes a simple-majority vote to pass, is supported by King County Sheriff John Urquhart, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, King County Executive Dow Constantine and dozens of local police and fire departments.
“We know there are gaps throughout the county,” said Urquhart. “The technology is antiquated. We’re not to baling wire and duct tape yet, but we’re getting close.”
Motorola has been criticized in the past few years for its dominance of emergency-telecommunications systems in the country. Government officials have frequently awarded the company contracts without competitive bids, costing taxpayers millions in added costs, according to press reports.
Mendel said King County was well aware of the criticism and hired a technical consultant to help write a competitive bid proposal. The county outlined its technical criteria and evaluated the bids based on the vendors’ abilities to meet those requirements, he said.
Opposition to the levy has come from some fire districts worried that the measure could reduce their ability to collect taxes within the constitutionally mandated levy limits. That could force them to cut their budgets and lay off firefighters, said Mark Thompson, a commissioner for South King Fire District, which serves Federal Way, Des Moines and unincorporated South King County.
An interlocal agreement that would protect the fire districts from adverse effects from the levy is being considered by the Metropolitan King County Council, he said. The levy also includes $1 million per year to compensate the fire districts for any lost tax revenues.
“We totally support the need for the new radio system. The new one provides much better service. But taxes in fire districts that voters have already approved could be cut. The fire districts could take a hit,” Thompson said.
Supporters say the vast majority of police and firefighters support the levy because it would ensure essential communication and coordination among emergency personnel. And they call the cost to build the new system modest.
“Every day, going forward, the need becomes more critical,” Urquhart said.
Ballots in the all-mail election must be postmarked by April 28.