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Bond measure will ask voters to upgrade emergency radios

Funding will convert aging, outdated equipment from analog to digital and extend system's reach

REVIEW PHOTO: ANTHONY MACUK - Operators John Wiggins (from left), Donna McDougal and Tara Dye staff Lake Oswego's emergency dispatch center on a busy afternoon.Operators in Lake Oswego’s LOCOM emergency dispatch center faced a frustrating hiccup last week when one of their communications equipment consoles suddenly crashed.

“In kind of an hour-and-a-half period of time, that console went down four different times,” LOCOM director Leslie Taylor told The Review. “For a very short period of time — four to five seconds — it would go down. Then it takes about another half a minute for it to come back up, and then it would go down, and then it would come back up.”

A technician was eventually able to restore the system to working order, but Taylor says these kinds of brief equipment failures are becoming increasingly common for the dispatch center’s aging and outdated systems. And the repairs are also becoming more difficult and expensive, because spare components are no longer readily available.

“It’s a challenge with the technology today, because the analog equipment is just not what people are using, so it’s harder to maintain,” says Taylor. “It’s harder to find the people that can maintain it, it’s harder to find the parts to maintain it — it’s just kind of like using an old tube TV.”

Lake Oswego’s police and fire departments and LOCOM center all use Clackamas County’s emergency radio system, along with other agencies and city departments throughout the region. All of the connected agencies are facing the same equipment problems, which is why the county will ask voters next month to finance an overhaul of the system.

A $58.7 million bond measure on the May 2016 primary ballot would, if approved, provide funding to convert the system from analog technology to current digital standards. The projected tax rate for the bond is 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation, or about $26 per year for the owner of an average house.

Clackamas County is one of 20 members of the Clackamas 800 (C800) Radio Group, the consortium that runs the system along with the Washington County Consolidated Communications Agency. Washington County voters will decide on a similar bond measure on May 17.

In Clackamas County, the bond would pay half the cost of replacement radios — participating agencies would put up the other half — plus upgraded equipment and reinforcement of buildings to withstand earthquakes. Lake Oswego’s emergency services would be among those receiving new equipment.

Taylor says the new system would function much like the current one, but would be less failure-prone.

“Lake Oswego emergency services all use the Clackamas emergency radio system as it is today,” says Taylor, “so our services definitely utilize that system, are impacted by its current state and would benefit from any improvements to it in the future.”

The bond measure would also finance the construction of 14 new radio towers across the county to provide radio coverage where it is now inadequate or nonexistent — particularly around Mt. Hood and southern Clackamas County — and to increase coverage inside buildings. According to Taylor, many newer buildings are constructed using materials that can block or weaken signals and create radio “dead zones,” which is the last thing a police officer or firefighter wants to deal with during an emergency.

“That’s a particularly big deal for first responders,” says Taylor. “The way it is now, they can’t just pick up their radio and push the button and have it work if they’re inside a school. They have to start thinking about ‘Where am I in the school? Am I near a window, or am I near another officer who's going to be able to hear me?’ You don’t want to have to worry about your workaround.”

Lake Oswego Fire Chief Larry Goff says the enhanced building coverage would be a huge benefit to his department. He says the current system sometimes forces firefighters to rely on workarounds in certain buildings that don’t have a nearby tower.

“When we’re in a building, the (inside firefighter’s) radio doesn’t talk directly to the incident commanders in the rig out in front of the building. That (inside) radio has to make it to a tower, then it’s simulcast back through the system and then hits that (outside) radio,” says Goff. “Typically, we have a workaround, but it would certainly be nice to not have to do that as often.”

Goff says the new system will also help with outdoor coverage because digital signals don’t degrade as much as analog, so emergency responders can get clearer communication at the edge of the system’s coverage area.

Bond advocates say voter rejection would leave Clackamas County with a system that cannot connect with Portland — which operates the communications system for other agencies in Multnomah County — or the Oregon Emergency Response System, or the Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency in Washington state.

“This keeps us interoperable with what the others are moving toward, like the City of Portland,” says Goff. “They’re upgrading — they're actually ahead of us in work on it. Washington County and Clackamas County will be on the same system, and it will be compatible with Portland’s system.”

And that, says Capt. Jim Rhodes of the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office, is crucial to officers in the field.

“We officers carry a lot of gear,” Rhodes said. “We carry handcuffs and a gun, we have belts and pouches and pockets full of gadgets. But arguably, the single most important piece of equipment we have is our radio — and that radio is only as good as the quality of the infrastructure that supports it.”

Contact Anthony Macuk at 503-636-1281 ext. 108 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..