Spokane County voters will get a chance in November to bring emergency communications into the digital age while going back in time to the Crime Check reporting system they knew as children.
County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to place a one-tenth-of-a-percent sales tax on the general election ballot to raise money for emergency service communications systems, including restoration of the Crime Check hotline for reporting incidents that don’t warrant calling 911.
If the tax is approved, the familiar Crime Check telephone number – (509) 456-2233 – will be put back in service and operators will take calls around the clock, seven days a week, commissioners promised.
Crime Check was a Spokane institution long before 911 was established, but it was discontinued in late 2004 when the city of Spokane was no longer able to pay its share of the cost.
Since then, a scaled-down Spokane Crime Reporting Center has taken reports – but not requests for service – 12 hours a day on weekdays and for nine hours on Saturdays. The result has been a drastic reduction in the number of reports, which are used to determine crime trends, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said.
A new computerized radio system would allow police, fire and other emergency responders to talk directly to one another at incidents that require them to work together.
A string of wildfires between Spokane and Cheney on Saturday illustrated the problem, Assistant Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said. He needed a sheriff’s deputy to open a lane of traffic but couldn’t talk to the deputy without relaying his message through dispatchers. Schaeffer said he could see the officer, but their radios were on different frequencies.
With the proposed digital radio system, officials could easily link various agencies.
Spokane Valley Fire Chief Mike Thompson said his department has been assigned a new radio frequency for medical calls but no other agency can use the frequency. It is one of the new bandwidth-compressing channels the Federal Communications Commission wants all local emergency departments to begin using.
Departments that don’t convert by 2012 will have their bandwidth cut in half, and another halving of available radio frequencies is likely five years after that, Knezovich said.
It’s time to upgrade anyway, he and others said: Portions of the radio system are 50 years old and leave gaps where even people on the same frequency can’t talk to one another.
Officials want to build a new digital communications system that would cost $41 million to $43 million, not counting equipment assigned to individual officers.
County commissioners decided not to place a sunset clause on the proposed tax, which would raise an estimated $7 million a year. They said the money will be needed to cover increased emergency dispatching costs and eventually to pay for a next-generation 911 communications center.
The tax money couldn’t be used for anything except emergency communications, and commissioners promised to appoint a six-member commission to monitor spending.
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