That big construction project on Pacific? It’s the 911 building you voted on 8 years ago

Eight years ago, voters passed a tax measure for a more efficient and better first response to emergencies across Pierce County.

On Monday, work began on a $59 million project for South Sound 911’s public safety communications building at the site of the former Puget Sound Hospital.

The project includes a new dispatch and record center on Pacific Avenue for police, fire and EMT agencies, equipment and furnishings and renovating the current center to become a backup dispatch center.

What is South Sound 911?

The 2011 vote to improve communication among the 41 law enforcement, fire and EMT agencies created a new government agency, South Sound 911.

Over the past eight years, the agency has consolidated four dispatch centers, paid for new radios with access to both Pierce County frequencies for all police, fire and EMTs, and updated computer systems in first responder vehicles for access to incidents across the county in real time.

“All the dollars from the voter-approved measure have gone to improve the communication system,” executive director Andrew Neiditz told The News Tribune.

The consolidation has brought together more than 230 dispatchers, IT and staff from across the county, who work in a building on 35th Street in Tacoma and answer more than 2,600 calls a day.

As part of South Sound 911’s plans, that building will be renovated into a backup dispatch center at a cost of about $6 million.

The merger has not been without its growing pains.

A whistleblower complained that the new computer system was freezing. The complaint described the computer-aided dispatch as having “episodic theoretical potential to create officer or public safety issues,” but a hired investigator said the lags did not put the public in danger.

South Sound 911 struggled to find a site for the public safety building. After two failed properties, the first scrapped over soil contamination concerns in 2015 and the other deemed unfeasible in 2016, the agency landed on the old Puget Sound Hospital.

Tacoma Fire Communications, which continues to oversee fire department calls in Tacoma, Ruston and Fife, does not plan to relocate to the new facility. Its dispatchers are expected to move into the 35th Street facility when other dispatchers relocate to the new facility because the department wants to create “operational redundancy” in the event of an outage at either the primary or the backup dispatch center, spokesperson Joe Meinecke said.

Sound Sound 911 has borrowed money from Pierce County for the project, following two previous loans on $55 million radio systems.

Revenue from the 0.1 percent sales taxes increase approved by voters, which raised $18 million in 2018, will slowly pay back the debt. Dispatchers’ salaries and benefits will continue to be paid through the E-911 tax, as they did before South Sound 911 began.

The building is expected to be completed by March 2021.

South Sound 911 time line

2011: Voters approved a tax hike of a penny on every $10 purchase

2012: An interlocal agreement is signed, and two boards are created to run the new government agency: the Operations Board, with 15 police and fire chiefs, and the Policy Board, comprised of 10 elected officials across Pierce County. The executive director of South Sound 911 is the intermediary between the boards.

2015: More than 4,500 new radios are up and running on the two radio frequencies. All first responders have access to both frequencies, and, if needed, King and Snohomish counties.

2016: Both police and fire have a unified computer system to look at calls and track incidents in real time.

2017: An architectural firm starts designs for the new public safety communications building.

2018: Paper files of police reports, incident reports and public records requests across the county are transferred to electronic copies

2019: A new interlocal agreement changes the governance to a single board of directors of 11 elected officials while the police and fire chiefs act as an advisory committee to the board and the executive director.

2019: Construction starts on the new public safety building.

Josephine Peterson covers Pierce County and Puyallup for The News Tribune and The Puyallup Herald. She previously worked at The News Journal in Delaware as the crime reporter and interned at The Washington Post.