New radio system improves public safety and transit

Pierce County and Pierce Transit officials are delivering on the South Sound 911 promise to improve public safety and emergency communications throughout the region by launching a new radio system.

Pierce Transit shifted to the system in May. The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, as well as police departments serving Gig Harbor, Fircrest and Roy, moved to the system on Oct. 16.

“Law enforcement and transit drivers now can hear each other across the county as clear as if they were in the next room,” said County Executive Pat McCarthy, who sits on the governing boards of Pierce Transit and South Sound 911 and oversees the county’s Department of Emergency Management. “This is a major milestone as we develop the new communications systems that voters were promised when they approved my proposal to create South Sound 911.”

Pierce County’s Department of Emergency Management began working with Pierce Transit in 2011 to upgrade the transit agency’s radio system and expand its use to law enforcement agencies. Their mission was to meet Federal Communications Commission requirements for narrowbanding (compression of radio bandwidth) and improve public safety by expanding high quality radio coverage. Both agencies, like most others in the region, had been operating on systems that would not comply with the January 1, 2017 federal requirements. In addition, both agencies have historically experienced significant gaps in radio communications coverage.

“This project has strengthened our relationships, provided an extraordinary communications system, and is an excellent demonstration of sound public investments,” said Rick Talbert, a Pierce County Councilmember and chair of the Pierce Transit Board of Commissioners. “It will enhance Pierce Transit’s on-time performance by improving communications quality and coverage.”

Since Pierce Transit’s migration to the new Motorola system on May 17, testing continued through the summer to ensure the quality of radio coverage has increased from 89 percent to 97 percent, which is the highest public safety communication standard that any company will guarantee. Last week, the Sheriff’s Department and police departments in Gig Harbor, Fircrest and Roy were the first law enforcement agencies to make the move. Other users will switch through the rest of the year, including road crews from Pierce County Public Works and Utilities, animal control officers from the County Auditor’s Office, and the Fife Police Department and the agencies for which it dispatches. There will be 5,000 subscribers on the system by year’s end.

“Officer safety is greatly improved with this system,” said County Sheriff Paul Pastor. “When one of our deputies hits the red button in a bad situation, dispatchers will know which deputy it is, where they are located, be able to hear them clearly, and open a line of streaming audio to continue to monitor the situation.”

The Pierce Transit/Pierce County network is now the second largest 700 MHz digital system in the country, following the state of Illinois. Mobile radios on the system – technically called a P-25 TDMA system – can be heard clearly from Snohomish County to Thurston County – even inside of buildings. There are 18 radio towers to support this coverage, and also multiple redundancy capabilities if one or more of the tower sites goes down.

The new system cost $56 million. Funding included a South Sound 911 bond for $18 million, federal Homeland Security grants, and money from the capital budgets of Pierce Transit and Pierce County.

The next milestones in the development of the countywide communications system is to launch the City of Tacoma’s 800 MHz system, which also will serve numerous agencies. Then the two systems will be connected, which will fulfill the promise to voters of an interoperable system connecting all first responders.

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