Growing a better, faster 911 network for the South Sound

The south, left, and north buildings of the old Puget Sound Hospital on 3580 Pacific Ave. in Tacoma will make way for South Sound 911's state-of-the-art communication facility.
The south, left, and north buildings of the old Puget Sound Hospital on 3580 Pacific Ave. in Tacoma will make way for South Sound 911's state-of-the-art communication facility. News Tribune file photo

In Pierce County, most of us hope never to have to call South Sound 911. But the agency answers about 2,500 calls daily and the demand for emergency services continues to rise.

South Sound 911 is a model agency with oversight from a policy board comprised of elected officials from around the county and an operations board comprised of fire and police chiefs from the 41 police and fire agencies who depend on the agency to serve our community.

Every agency is working together for solutions in dispatch and radio communication interoperability. South Sound 911 facilitates those solutions. It is an independent, cooperative entity. No single jurisdiction “owns” it, which ensures fair consideration to the needs of the public and each agency using its services.

South Sound 911 has been working hard to fulfill the vision laid out when Proposition 1 was approved in November 2011.

With that vote, the community entrusted the agency to fulfill a promise: to use the 0.1 percent sales tax revenue to finance the “design, acquisition, construction, equipping, operating, maintaining, remodeling, repairing, reequipping, and improvement of emergency communications systems and facilities infrastructure.”

Since then, the agency has consolidated emergency communications centers, replaced outdated 911 phone systems, implemented a regional computer-aided dispatch system and provided nearly 4,600 new public safety radios for first responders.

All this was accomplished in a few short years, so we as a community could realize the benefits of an emergency response system which works cohesively and efficiently to protect and serve.

Currently, we are moving forward on building a centralized public safety communications center to better serve those who live, work, play, and visit here and might have need of one of our many police or fire agencies.

This building, to be located on the 3500 block of Pacific Avenue in Tacoma, will be built to the highest national standards set by the National Emergency Number Association, Federal Emergency Management Agency and National Fire Protection Association. The process of abating and removing the long-vacant Puget Sound Hospital is underway.

Also included in that ballot promise was a seamless regional solution for Next Generation 911, the merging of dispatch operations and regional cooperation between police and fire. When we work together, we work better – and voters understand that means better, faster service during an emergency.

We must continue on this collaborative path in order to fulfill our promise. That means:

▪  Working to define South Sound 911’s role in the management, maintenance, and seamless interoperability of two radio systems currently owned and operated by Tacoma and Pierce County/Pierce Transit;

▪  Reassessing the use of the state 911 excise tax paid on every phone line and collected by Pierce County’s Department of Emergency Management historically used to fund 911 center coordination;

▪  Conducting a joint review of police and fire dispatch operations to maximize effectiveness through future integration.

Our community has trusted South Sound 911 to help us work together; now it’s time to keep its momentum to provide reliable and efficient emergency communications.

We hope you never need to call South Sound 911, but we know the reality all too well.

The agency and its leaders want to ensure that the call takers, dispatchers and responders they support are equipped and prepared to answer every call for help, in the best and fastest way possible.

Joe Lonergan is a Tacoma City Council member and chair of South Sound 911’s policy board. Jim Sharp is the fire chief for West Pierce Fire & Rescue and chair of South Sound 911’s operations board.