It’s 2 a.m. and a police officer has pulled over a driver on an isolated rural road on suspicion of driving under the influence. The officer calls for back-up before approaching the vehicle, but emergency dispatch is unable to hear the call.
A fire crew is called to a house fire in a remote part of Kitsap County. Upon arrival, firefighters hear a person yelling from inside the burning building. The crew calls for another unit to respond, but the request is never heard.
Such scenarios could play out in parts of the county due to Kitsap’s outdated 911 communication system, according to South Kitsap Fire and Rescue Chief Jeff Faucett. The system does not provide reliable coverage for parts of the county where population has grown dramatically since the system’s original design, officials said. The radio system has limited capacity and cannot keep up with the increasing 911 incidents, they added.
Spotty radio coverage and the unpredictability of first responders communicating among themselves during an emergency, is behind Proposition 2 on the Nov. 2 general election ballot, officials said.
Opponents of the measure complain it’s a one-time technology upgrade, but the tax will never go away.
Law enforcement agencies using the system include the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office and police departments serving Bainbridge Island, Poulsbo, Suquamish, Port Gamble, Bremerton and Port Orchard. Fire departments reliant on the system include Bainbridge Island, Poulsbo and Bremerton, as well as North Kitsap, Central Kitsap and South Kitsap fire and rescue departments.
Passage of the proposition will secure funding to replace the entire emergency communication system and ensure safe and effective radio and data communications for first responders, supporters say. It would include upgrades to the county’s radio towers, mobile computer terminals and radios used by first responders in the field and Kitsap 911’s computer-aided dispatch equipment and software.
Proposition 2 would fund a $41 million modernization of Kitsap 911’s emergency communications system with a sales tax rate increase of 1/10th of 1%, which would add a penny to a $10 taxable purchase. If approved, the measure will cost the average taxpayer about $16 per year.
Kitsap 911 is not part of Kitsap County government and receives no financial support from property taxes. It is funded primarily by use fees from police, fire and support agencies, and from sales taxes and 911 telephone taxes, 911 officials say.
Kitsap County’s 911 system was implemented in 1998. Police and fire and rescue administrators say the manufacturer of the county’s emergency communications equipment will no longer support the system beginning in 2028. K-911 handles an average of 1,000 calls each day, and call volume has increased 50% since 1997.
Assistant supervisor Drew Tetrick described the system’s problems on a Kitsap 911 website video:
“In times where a unit is in a bad radio coverage area, there is poor radio reception. They might make a radio request to us that we can’t hear clearly, and we have to ask them to repeat it or maybe call us on the phone. In an [emergency], seconds count. The more we can minimize those things, the better.”
Faucett said: “This for us is a firefighter safety issue. Sixty percent of our responders had difficulty transmitting because of radio traffic caused by static or because there are so many responders using their radios.”
He added that he was recently driving when he heard a 911 report of a house fire. “I was only about five miles away. But I couldn’t hear what the on-scene fire crew was saying.
“For the majority of the South Kitsap Fire District, [firefighters on the scene or responding units] can radio others only if they are outside of a building. If they are inside fighting a fire, we can’t hear them — it’s scratchy or we have to have K-911 relay the information to us,” he said.
There is opposition to the measure. A voter’s guide statement says that K-911 has been aware of the required system upgrades for years and complained the agency’s lack of planning is now being passed down to voters.
“No reason for a forever tax has been given and little to no detailed plans of how the funds will be used has been provided,” the group’s statement reads. “Any sales tax increase is regressive and unfairly impacts the middle class and lower-income.”