Pierce County Sheriff’s Department deputies can finally talk easily across the miles

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department has started using a new radio system to improve public safety and emergency communications.

With the new system, a deputy in Eatonville can now talk with a deputy in Gig Harbor on the same network, said Tim Lenk, county communications program manager.

Under the old VHF system, deputies in east and west sections of the county couldn’t connect by radio, Lenk said. They had to use their cellphones or laptops or rely on a dispatcher relaying messages.

The joint 700 MHz system for the Sheriff’s Department and Pierce Transit cost $56 million, including $18 million funded by the South Sound 911 agency. Voters in 2011 approved a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax increase to create South Sound 911 for developing a regional radio and dispatch system.

Other funding came from federal Homeland Security grants and budgets for Pierce County and Pierce Transit.

The Sheriff’s Department — and police departments for Gig Harbor, Fircrest and Roy — moved to the system Oct. 16. Pierce Transit shifted to the joint system in May.

The county’s Department of Emergency Management started working with Pierce Transit in 2011 to upgrade the bus system’s radio system and expand its use to law enforcement.

South Sound 911 is working to build a cohesive radio system for emergency responders that will comply with federal standards for “narrow-banding” and replace a patchwork of incompatible systems.

Both County Executive Pat McCarthy and Sheriff Paul Pastor said the network is a major step in delivering on the promise made to voters for a seamless communications system.

“It’s better for our citizens, it’s better for our first responders,” McCarthy said. “It’s something that we said that we would do.”

Pastor said the system enables law enforcement deputies to talk directly with other agencies on the same network.

The network also increases officer safety, he said. When officers hit the “red button in a bad situation,” dispatchers will know which deputy hit the button and where that deputy is located and they will be able to hear that deputy clearly, Pastor said in a statement.

With the help of 18 radio towers, the system is so strong that mobile radios in patrol cars can be heard clearly from Snohomish to Thurston counties.

County road crews, animal control officers and Fife police — as well as the agencies Fife dispatches for — are scheduled to switch over to the system by the end of the year. Pierce County Jail corrections deputies are expected to start using the new system next year, Lenk said.

The next major step in a countywide network is scheduled for December when local fire and police agencies start using the city of Tacoma’s 800 MHz digital system. Both systems will be connected.