Supporting a better 911 system

I’ve long told friends that serving on the U.S. Open Operating Committee was the coolest experience of my 6 ½-year career as Pierce County’s Communications director, but being on the innovative team that created South Sound 911 ranks as the most important.

When you call 9-1-1, you expect a cop, firefighter or ambulance to arrive – or some combination of the three – as fast as possible. But problems with the 911 system had festered below the radar for years. The problem was largely one of silos – over the decades, various public safety agencies built their own radio systems, and some had their own dispatch facilities with their own systems. Cops, firefighters, paramedics and dispatchers often could not communicate directly with each other – even while working at the same scene.

In stepped Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy, my boss at the time, with a solution.

South Sound 911 logoSeveral agencies, including the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, needed to upgrade their radio systems (some of which were still analog) to meet new FCC requirements to reduce frequency bandwidth. There was no sense in each agency spending millions of dollars to buy new digital radios and systems, McCarthy argued, if they were going to keep operating independently of each other. She proposed that the biggest systems combine their resources under one umbrella.

Thus, the idea of South Sound 911 was born.

The County Executive assembled a team of partner agencies to work out the details. I had the privilege of joining fire and law enforcement officials and city managers as the plan came together. My role was to coordinate the public outreach. I led the development of presentations like this one to explain the problem and the proposed solution. Our partners made these presentations more than 200 times throughout the community. (The communications group I chaired also came up with the agency name and the logo.)

Pierce County voters overwhelmingly approved the plan in November 2011. Since then, new digital radios have been delivered to nearly every cop and firefighter in the county. And those first responders are talking to each other on a new digital radio network that went live last year. The new network is so strong that an officer in the basement of the Fircrest Police Department heard an officer in the basement of the Police Department in Eatonville as clear as if he was in the next room during testing.

Radios are the lifeline for first responders. Giving them the tools to keep them safe makes us all safer. It was a privilege to work with first responders on an extraordinary regional partnership that provided police officers in Fircrest and elsewhere with new digital radios, a new network, and more peace of mind.

Oct. 23 update: PCTV just produced this short video about the new Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) system. Fircrest PD is among the agencies using this system now.

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