Separate measures planned May 17 in Washington, Clackamas counties.

Voters in Washington and Clackamas counties will decide separate bond issues to pay for the upgrade of their joint emergency communications system that dates back to the 1990s.

Both measures are planned for the May 17 primary election.

The Washington County bond, which commissioners set in motion Tuesday (Jan. 5), is for a total of $77 million. The cost to the owner of an average house is estimated at $20 annually, at a rate of no more than 8 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

The Clackamas County bond, which commissioners are expected to set in motion soon, is for a total of $58.7 million. The cost to the owner of an average house is estimated at $25 annually, at a rate of 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

“This system is key to our ability to provide public safety services and protect our citizens and responders,” says Kelly Dutra, director of the Washington County Consolidated Communications Agency. The consortium has 19 member agencies, including the county, cities and fire districts.

Government consortiums in the two counties operate a joint communications system, which links to recently upgraded networks run by the city of Portland, Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency, and the Oregon Emergency Response System for state agencies. The Portland city system serves several other agencies in Multnomah County.

Washington County commissioners have directed the county counsel to prepare an official summary known as a ballot title for consideration on Jan. 19.

Clackamas County commissioners were briefed on their bond issue Oct. 6 and are expected to take similar steps soon to place the measure on the ballot.

An aging system

The current system dates back to the 1990s, when both counties had fewer people and most households used landline telephones. Now both counties have far more people — Washington County’s population is almost double that of 1990 — and most emergency calls are generated by cell or smartphones.

“As our growth continues, so does our need to have a system that can not only meet today’s emergencies, but also tomorrow’s increasing demand as well,” says Larry Boxman, vice president for operations at Metro/West Ambulance based in Hillsboro.

In addition, the 2011 earthquake in Japan has called attention to the possibility of an event of similar magnitude off the Oregon coast and the potential of major damage to western Oregon.

“Upgrading equipment and strengthening key facilities would improve the reliability of the emergency communications system even when a major emergency causes landline or cell phone networks to overload or fail,” says a report filed with the commissioners.

The project also envisions replacement of about 3,000 analog radios currently used by police, fire and other emergency services.

As with most older communications systems, parts are hard to find and technical service is being phased out.

Dutra says a new system should be up and running by the end of 2018.

“We keep an eye on the future of communications technology,” Dutra said after the presentation to the commissioners. “We know there is going to be continued change, so we are trying to stay ahead of it. This package is going to get us in a good position to do that.”

Ron Polluconi, technical services manager for the agency, says equipment will be purchased in a couple of years and technical upgrades every two years afterward for about a decade.

“If that technology is extendable, we will continue to buy upgrades until such time as that technology dramatically changes,” he says.

Value of current system

Although it was not a public hearing, Washington County commissioners invited several officials to speak about the recommended bond issue.

Two of them talked about recent incidents that show the value of the current system to public safety agencies.

Sheriff Pat Garrett described a New Year’s Eve robbery in North Plains by someone who refused to pay $40 in gasoline and used a stolen motor home to injure the station attendant and damage another car.

Assisted by North Plains police and a police dog, sheriff’s deputies caught up with the suspect, who abandoned the motor home and was found 25 minutes later in the woods about a mile away. A woman who accompanied him also was taken into custody.

During the pursuit, Garrett says, deputies were able to confirm information about Reiner Schmolling, who was arrested earlier in 2015 on a felony parole violation and who shot a sheriff’s detective and killed a Hillsboro police dog back in 1997. (The detective survived.)

“We knew at that point we were dealing with a dangerous person,” Garrett says. “We could not have brought these emergency services to bear on him without it.”

Chief Michael Duyck of Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue described a different use of the communications system the previous night (Jan. 4), when a house fire in Tigard threatened to spread to nearby houses. Although the first house sustained about $50,000 in damages, firefighters contained the fire, which was traced to fireplace ashes set in a plastic recycling bin outside the house.

“Our successes are based on a fast and effective response,” Duyck says. “Without this radio system, it would not be possible. We did not have nearly the losses that we could have had.”

Chief Michael Kinkade of Forest Grove Fire & Rescue says the current communications technology is on a par with bulky cell phones in the 1990s, before their use became widespread.

“That is what our radio infrastructure is now, so we have to replace and upgrade it,” he says.

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