The Times - Serving Waitsburg, Dayton and the Touchet Valley

By Michele Smith
The Times 

County Struggles with Outdated Equipment

Fire, ambulance, dispatch and sheriff’s office seek solutions


DAYTON--Outdated telecommunication equipment is causing consternation for the staff at the county’s emergency management dispatch center, the sheriff’s office, Fire Districts No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3, and ambulance crews. It could be posing a safety issue for county residents as well.

Emergency Management Director Lisa Caldwell, Public Works Director Andrew Woods, Fire Chief Jeremy Phinney, Sheriff Rocky Miller, Allan Harris from Fire Dist. No. 1, and Thor Wiegman, from Industrial Communications in Spokane, were at last week’s BOCC workshop to discuss issues regarding the telecommunication system, and to offer suggestions for improvement.

There are six radio repeater sites throughout the hills of Dayton: Thorn, Dayton, Starbuck, Tucannon, Tallow, and Delany. Some are owned by REA and Inland Cellular, and one is owned by the Department of Natural Resources, according to Caldwell.

When the Zetron main radio dispatch control system works as it should, calls into the dispatch center are fielded through the towers, to deputies, fire, and ambulance personnel, working in the field. Then the dispatch center receives communication back, and back and forth, through the towers, Caldwell said.

However, there are many “dead spots” or places where there is poor communication caused by a number of factors, due to the failing radio equipment.

And sometimes communication breaks down completely, said Caldwell.

“We can no longer hear Waitsburg ( Fire District No. 2 ), unless they are in their vehicle, and then we are lucky if we can still hear them,” Caldwell said.

“We have lost total communication with Dayton General Hospital,” she added.

Fire Chief Jeremy Phinney said Fire District No. 3 is having problems with the Thorn repeater. Thorn covers the city of Dayton and a section of the county.

“There is a huge difference from a year ago. Units in Waitsburg can’t talk to us. Communication is gone in places in Dayton. We can’t talk from a portable radio,” he said.

One idea being floated is to switch to a simulcast radio system for increased efficiency and officer safety, which will provide more consistent and reliable radio communication, according to Wiegman.

In his report to Caldwell, Wiegman explained that a simulcast system combines multiple repeater sites into what appears to be a single communication channel, so that dispatchers and officers in the field use that single channel for the entire area.

Under the current system, it is not possible to make a single broadcast that is heard county-wide. A deputy must select the appropriate radio channel for the area they are in. If they fail, they may not be heard or will be heard poorly by others, he said.

If two deputies are working in opposite corners of the county, and the dispatcher needs to announce a bulletin to all of them, the dispatcher must make the announcement first on one channel, then repeat the announcement on a second channel, for the other officer.

Also, when the dispatcher needs to communicate with a particular officer they do not know which channel to select to be heard reliably by the officer. If their educated guess turns out to be wrong, they may not be heard, said Wiegman..

He said the existing system uses very old IP networking equipment and his recommendation is to immediately replace the equipment, particularly the Multi-VoIP units in the courthouse.

Caldwell said the Multi-VoIPs are an essential component of the radio system. If one goes down, the channels associated with that specific Multi-VoIP will be lost. There are multiple Multi-VoIPs located at each tower site and in the dispatch center, she said.

“One already failed at the Dayton site. This left us with the Thorn site operational,” said Caldwell.

The fans in the Multi-VoIP at the dispatch center are grinding, Wiegman said. “It will die at any moment.”

The dispatch center Multi-VoIPs controls our ability to talk to both law and fire in Starbuck, Fire and Ambulance in Dayton and Waitsburg, and law enforcement in the section of the county that is covered by Thorn,” Caldwell said.

She said she would entertain the idea of replacing the Multi-VoIps, which are “end of life, and replace the dispatch console, with a total system, for the future.

Caldwell said the console at the dispatch center was purchased in the 1990s, and was upgraded in 2008. It needs to be replaced in order to integrate the radio system with the phone system. A new Zetron Max D console would increase the ability for numerous channels at one time.

“We could move to a different location if we need to abandon the dispatch center here,” she said. “It would work with the new sheriff’s radio, so if a deputy pushes a button we would be able to identify who it is,” she added.

Wiegman has provided the county with an installation estimate, with 3- or 5-year payment options for the dispatch portion, Caldwell said.

She would also like to have a maintenance agreement in place for the radio. The county already has a contract with Industrial Communications for the phone system.

Funds could be raised through the enactment of a short term county tax to pay for the system. Nineteen counties in Washington State have enacted a county tax of 1/10 of 1% to pay for emergency communications, Caldwell said.

Commissioner Norm Passmore asked the group at last week’s meeting to look into consolidation of services for telecommunications, for the various departments, keeping in mind cost containment.

Woods assured the commissioners they will be “vetted and informed” by the group, who will report back to the commissioners with cost estimates at the end of July.

Most of the portable radios, repeaters, and several of the mobile radios in the Sheriff’s fleet are fairly new, but a commitment to routine maintenance should also be made, Wiegman said.


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