Pierce County corrections deputies have not had a smooth transition to a new radio system created to unify communication among law enforcement and first responders in the South Sound.
Outside the confines of the Pierce County Jail corrections staff can use new radios to connect to the 700 MHz system that came online in 2014.
But inside the older section of the jail, the new radios can’t pick up the new signal. Nor can they pick up the existing single-band signal, as officials had hoped.
“We thought we’d just turn in the old radio and take the new radio,” said Lowell Porter, Pierce County Department of Emergency Management director.
Instead, it quickly became clear the building’s infrastructure, including bullet-proof glass, concrete walls and steel materials, prevented a reliable connection.
“It’s one of those technology nightmares,” Porter said.
The county hoped to move corrections deputies from their existing Kenwood radios to new Motorola radios in January. That didn’t happen.
It’s like having a new iPhone working in the flip-phone technology.
Deb Hopkins, vice president of Pierce County Corrections Guild
Technology staff is working to fix the gaps and Porter anticipates the switch to the new radios will happen soon. But until that happens, corrections staff will continue to use the Kenwood radios they’ve always used.
“If we were to go to live with the Motorola radios right now, we would be in the dark,” said Deb Hopkins, vice president of the Pierce County Corrections Guild. “It’s like having a new iPhone working in the flip-phone technology.”
REPORT PREDICTED SOME PROBLEMS
County officials knew there would be problems trying to connect to the 700 MHz system from within the jail. They didn’t anticipate the connection issues between the new radios and the old system, Porter said.
A consultant report warned of the connectivity problems at the jail in 2014. The report recommended installing a distributed antenna system somewhere on the county’s downtown campus to boost the wireless signal of the 700 MHz signal. The report did not look at connecting new radios to the old signal.
The consultant report noted the distributed system would also help improve cellular service at the City-County Building that could be used by the public as well as law enforcement.
The distributed system doesn’t need to be in the building it is boosting. Because of that, county officials proposed building it into a new general services building and including it in the overall cost of that project. That plan — and the financing for it — crumbled last year when the public voted against the construction of the building.
Now officials are looking a long-term solution to connect corrections staff to the larger radio system used by the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department and other first responders.
Porter would still like to see a distributed antenna system installed but other options are also being explored, he said.
The 2014 consultant report estimated it could cost $3.5 million to install the antenna and its various components.
Porter told the County Council that costs could be closer to $2 million because the county has already purchased some of the equipment. He later cautioned in a phone interview that an accurate estimate won’t be known until officials decide how to proceed.
“My concern was who is going to be looking in to this?” Councilwoman Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup, said in a phone interview. “We need a lot more information on where to go from here. A lot of discussion needs to take place before the council would agree to fund it.”
Council members are trying to pinpoint how much it would cost to improve the situation at the jail. The council first heard about the connectivity problems in January.
“This was supposed to be a cost-saving measure,” Councilman Derek Young, D-Gig Harbor, said at a recent meeting. “The cost-saving part is eluding me.”
This was supposed to be a cost-saving measure. The cost-saving part is alluding me.
Pierce County Councilman Derek Young, D-Gig Harbor
The county estimates it will save $160,000 a year in the jail when it moves to the new radios, which will be pooled for use by on-duty deputies. That’s a change from the current system in which each deputy has a radio they take home.
The 162 portable radios have already been purchased for $736,999. South Sound 911 funding paid for the radios.
SYSTEM CREATED TO IMPROVE COMMUNICATION
The joint 700 MHz network the jail staff is trying to connect to was created through a partnership with the Sheriff’s Department and Pierce Transit.
Facing a federal requirement to consolidate radio signals under an effort called “narrow banding,” the two agencies built the new, stronger radio network.
It cost $56 million to build, including $18 million funded by South Sound 911 for infrastructure and equipment upgrades. Federal and state grants, along with local funding, paid for the upgrade.
The $18 million came from a voter-approved 0.1 percent sales tax increase.
Amount paid by South Sound 911 to purchase 162 portable radios for Pierce County Corrections staff
The new frequency replaced a patchwork of radio frequencies formerly used by different agencies across the South Sound. Under the old VHF system, deputies in east and west sections of the county couldn't connect by radio. They instead used cellphones or laptops, or relied on dispatchers to relay messages.
Now they can communicate from as far north as the Snohomish County line south to Thurston County, according to Porter.
Despite the technological complications inside the jail, Porter said corrections staff who take inmates to the courthouse or area hospitals are using the new radios and the 700 MHz frequency.
“Under our system, when they’re at Harborview (Medical Center in Seattle), they have full connection back to Pierce County,” Porter said.
Other agencies and law enforcement also use the new system. The cities of Fife and Milton are expected to move over in the coming weeks, according to Porter.
The last piece of the puzzle is finding the right solution for corrections deputies that guarantees their safety.
“We want to make sure our corrections staff has the same modern, capable radio service that all our other law enforcement has,” Deputy County Executive Ron Klein said. “Our No. 1 goal is keeping them safe.”
A federal deadline to consolidate frequencies also means the county can’t procrastinate in its response, County Councilman Rick Talbert said.
The deadline to move the jail to the new narrow band system is Dec. 31.
“I think overall we’re certainly going to benefit greatly from this investment in the system, but there are some growing pains we’re going to have to work through,” the Tacoma Democrat said. “We shouldn’t get hung up with the fact the problem exists. We need to address it, one way or the other.”