By JESSE BURKHARDT
Klickitat County is facing a huge bill -- about $7 million -- to upgrade its emergency communications network, and it's not a bill that can be ignored indefinitely.
"The existing system will not hold up much longer," warned Klickitat County Commissioner David Sauter.
The problem is that there are so-called "dead spots" in the county, where communications do not work.
"Even in the Bingen-White Salmon area," Sauter said. "The repeater station is on Burdoin Mountain, but if the weather conditions are wrong it doesn't work."
That can lead to a situation where local police officers and Sheriff's Office deputies or other emergency responders are unable to communicate with the dispatcher's office in Goldendale.
"It's a little frightening when people can't talk to each other," Sauter said.
Sauter points out the problem is getting worse as more people move into more remote locations of the county.
Of course, with a price tag that big, funding is the key obstacle to getting the system going.
Klickitat County Sheriff Rick McComas said he believes that, despite the daunting price tag, the communications upgrade is essential.
"There have been far too many incidents in my 30-year tenure where the safety of our citizens and visitors have been jeopardized due to the poor radio quality," McComas said. "This project would greatly increase the ability to communicate with all law enforcement, fire, and medical personnel throughout many areas of our county that historically have had poor or no radio communication ability."
According to McComas, the areas that have had deficient radio coverage include Bickleton, Alderdale, Rock Creek Canyon, Wishram, Dallesport, the Klickitat Canyon, and areas around Glenwood and Trout Lake.
To address the problem, the county has been told it needs to build seven repeater stations around the county.
"We have to switch. We're on old technology that will be unsupported in the next couple of years," Sauter explained. "We're jumping ahead 20 years. We have to do it, but we also have to figure out a way to pay for it."
Bingen-White Salmon Police Chief Bruce Brending said he believes the new communications gear would significantly enhance law enforcement operations.
"I definitely support a new radio system," Brending said. "Ideally, this would put in place our ability to be connected by computers in the police cars. It would give a video streaming capability, electronic ticketing capability, and better reliability, as even in the city limits there are areas that are less than reliable in getting consistent communications on our portable radios."
McComas pointed out that the project originally was limited to adding more repeater sites, but the enhancements have expanded a bit in scope. McComas explained that the county's current 9-1-1 Dispatch Center is "grossly undersized," and cannot accommodate the new equipment and storage needs.
"In order to make the system work, it will require a new 9-1-1 dispatch center, and should be considered to include a new Emergency Operations Center (EOC)," McComas said. "The EOC is actually a separate necessity that is designed to coordinate resources during major incidents such as floods and fires, or highway and rail disasters, for example."
The county plans to hire a project manager by this summer to guide the upgrading of the communications network.
"There are two years left until the system won't work any more -- 2013 is it," Sauter explained. "This is a big issue as it gets closer."
"There is a specific need to come into compliance with a nationwide federal mandate to achieve public safety inter-operability levels," McComas added. "The second half of the mandate requires achieving narrow band radio capability by December 31, 2012."
McComas said he is a strong advocate of upgrading the communications network in the county.
"I support this project 110 percent," he said. "This is more then 20 years overdue. All of our emergency services have dealt with the unfortunate results of not being able to provide certain and immediate assistance to emergency responders and the citizens."
McComas added that there is widespread support among public safety officials about the need to invest in the new system.
"In October 2009, I was joined by every fire district, all the law enforcement agencies in the county, as well as medical representatives and support agencies in presenting our extreme concerns to the Board of County Commissioners regarding our current failing emergency radio system," McComas said. "The commissioners acknowledged the need, and set public safety as their number one priority. The system is very expensive, and I would not be surprised if the cost increases by the time we could walk through the door. However, these projects never get cheaper, and in the name of public safety we have to move this project forward with all the urgency possible."