Politics & Government

Corrections deputies don’t like county executive’s plan to save money on jail radios

Pierce County corrections deputies are opposing County Executive Pat McCarthy’s decision to keep radios at the jail instead of letting deputies continue taking them home between shifts. The deputies say the change will put their safety at risk.

Deputy County Executive Kevin Phelps, however, says the plan will actually make deputies safer by equipping them with new radios that have better capabilities. Each deputy still will have a radio when working in the jail.

The change will also lower operating costs at the jail by about $160,000 a year, Phelps said — the cost of staffing nearly two corrections deputies positions per year.

The county is under pressure to reduce costs at the jail. The Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jail, projects a shortfall of $2.1 million for jail operations by year’s end.

McCarthy said she made her decision within the last few weeks after learning the Sheriff’s Department planned to use new UHF radios in the jail for deputies.

“These are state-of-the-art radios that provide better coverage,” McCarthy told The News Tribune last week. “They don’t need their radios outside of the facility.”

Corrections deputies told the County Council on Sept. 9 that they oppose the pooled radio system.

Deputy Kent Wales said the switch “may jeopardize our safety.” He said radios will wear out more quickly and require repairs. He also said deputies now take personal responsibility for making sure their radios are recharged at home.

“In six months, I have a rubber band holding my radio together,” Wales said. “Batteries used constantly with little recharge won’t work.”

Officials say every deputy will start a shift with a radio and a fresh battery.

The new radios are part of the county’s switch to a 700 MHz communication system that meets federal requirements.

Corrections deputies are expected to begin using the new portable radios by the end of the year. Law enforcement deputies, who have already begun using the new radios, continue taking their radios home because they can be called to respond out in the community at any time.

Most radios for jail workers would be assigned to posts. That would cut the number of radios required by about half – from about 300 to 150.

The change would reduce operating costs by about $160,000 in annual subscriber fees to maintain the radios and the radio system, Phelps said. That annual charge now is $1,069 per radio.

Phelps said a consultant’s study supported using the tri-band radios. He said the state Department of Corrections uses a pooled radio system.

Each new radio will have two battery packs, and the jail will have up to 15 spare radios. The radios take up to two hours to charge, Phelps said.

About 75 corrections deputies are on duty during the day, the heaviest shift at the jail, Phelps said.

South Sound 911 is paying for the radios, but the county must cover operating and maintenance costs.

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

The Sheriff’s Department originally ordered 300 radios for the jail, enough so that each deputy would have a radio to take home, Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said.

“The county executive’s office came up with a different plan,” Troyer said. “Financially, this is the way we’re told to go.

“It’s not the ideal plan, but it’s the one we have to live with,” he said. “It’s the one we’re going to make work.”

Undersheriff Rob Masko said the change is a way to save money to pay for more corrections staff.

“We have every intention of not compromising anybody’s safety,” Masko said.

Brian Blowers, president of the Corrections Deputies Guild, said the union opposes the pooled system, asserting it will put deputies’ safety at risk.

“We’re concerned because it will create situations when we won’t have a radio on when we’re in this building,” Blowers said.

Deputies will be entering into and going out of the jail without a radio so they wouldn’t know if there was an emergency underway, Blowers said.

Masko said those kinds of situations have been few and haven’t been a substantial problem.

Phelps told the County Council last week the new radios will provide better connections both inside and outside the jail and enhance security, whether deputies are guarding inmates in the jail, in court or at a hospital. Compared with the current UHF system, the radios also will connect better with other public safety agencies, such as fire departments.

With a price tag per radio of $4,553.43 plus tax, the cost for 150 radios is $747,901. Money from not purchasing nearly another 150 radios will help pay for other equipment for the radio system.

County Council Chairman Dan Roach said he’s satisfied the pooled system with the upgraded radios will be safe, while saving money. “We need to find ways to be more efficient and obviously be safe at the same time,” Roach said.

The County Council does not have a vote on the purchase, and the executive’s plan is moving forward.

Blowers said he understands the need for financial prudence.

“We’re in agreement that we need an updated system,” Blowers said. “But we need a system that covers everybody.”

That means continuing to have a radio for every deputy to take home, he said.