Pierce County’s ‘concept’ works for South Sound 911

Andrew E. Neiditz is executive director of South Sound 911.
Andrew E. Neiditz is executive director of South Sound 911.

Pierce County’s “concept” has been discussed at several community meetings around the county.

The “concept” involves moving Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department and Pierce County Community Connections personnel and services to 3615 Pacific Ave. Space formerly occupied by those departments would then be cleared for construction of South Sound 911’s public safety communications center.

I commend the county for coming up with a solution, not only for South Sound 911’s facility, but also for the health department and Community Connections. Because when it comes down to the reason for the shuffle, South Sound 911 is the root of it all.

We are looking for a suitable place to build a 911 communications and emergency operations center, estimated to cost $62 million. That is a lot of voter-approved taxpayer money. But the reality is that it simply costs more to build the kind of facility necessary for our call volume, agency size, population and proximity to potential hazards. If there is a disaster, this new building needs to be standing and operating as the vital connection between responders and those in need of aid.

It is impractical and more expensive to convert a traditional building to meet the specialized needs of an emergency communications center. South Sound 911 operations are not like those of a customer service call center. In fact, its role in public safety is more akin to air traffic controllers in aviation.

I don’t know about you, but I want the skilled people answering my call for help to be working in conditions that make their job easier and efficient, so I can get help quickly.

What gets lost in the shuffle is what we’ve already accomplished. For the past three years, South Sound 911 effectively reduced costs while successfully managing increases in service and demand. Emergency call volumes increase annually, as does our responsibility to the 41 police and fire agencies we serve, and the technologies on which they rely.

We are finding ways to stretch taxpayer support. Our plan to build an emergency communications center and separate administration and public services office on a single parcel reduces the size of the buildings and cost of the originally envisioned two-building model voters approved as part of Proposition 1 on the November 2011 ballot.

A 2009 study estimated the cost of a new 911 center at more than $100 million. During the campaign for Proposition 1, two separate 911 centers were an estimated $70 million. Yet, the solution we propose now is estimated at $62 million, with hopes it will be lower through special public-private financing.

South Sound 911 is reducing the number of dispatch centers in the county to improve emergency call-handling efficiency. In three years, we’ve already consolidated from six separate 911 centers to four.

Since 2013, South Sound 911 has distributed funds from the 0.1 percent sales tax to reduce the cost of emergency 911 operations for the majority of police and fire agencies. Sharing resources, technology and information decreases costs and increases efficiency.

South Sound 911 improved the quality of public safety radio systems by funding radio infrastructure improvements and upgrades, in addition to providing new radios to first responders.

And we’re not done yet.

In order for South Sound 911 to fulfill its promise to voters, to accomplish our mission of providing “a modern, unified emergency communication and response system to protect and serve our communities and partner agencies,” we need a new facility. We need to continue to work better and improve emergency communications further. And we need the public to continue trusting our services and our ability to serve police and fire responders as well as the community.

While we certainly hope the path we’re on works for all of us — South Sound 911, the Health Department and Community Connections — if it turns out the county’s “concept” doesn’t work, we will look elsewhere to build our new public safety communications center.

South Sound 911 just needs a place to work better. Together.

Andrew E. Neiditz is executive director of South Sound 911.