Jim Barber, the Benton County Emergency Services communications manager, in the SECOMM switcher/radio room. Photo: BCES.
The Umatilla and Hanford sites have been a blessing to area public safety agencies which have benefited from funding through the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program (CSEPP). Money from CSEPP and a portion of funds from 911 taxes built the facility that houses BCES. CSEPP also funded much of the jail and headquarters of the Umatilla County Sheriff's Office in Pendleton, Ore., and funds the salaries of several people at BCES who will be laid off as the project ends.
The program has also funded portable and mobile radios, repeater towers, and the infrastructure necessary to implement digital and trunked radio systems. Federal Emergency Management Agency rules require that the computers in the BCES Emergency Operations Center (EOC) be updated every three years, and the servers every five years. BCES has nearly all-new computer equipment because of this program, but funding for replacements in the future will have to come from other sources.
Public safety concerns in having two hazardous material sites nearby mandates frequent exercises of area agencies and the emergency operations center at BCES. BCES/SECOMM Communications Manager Jim Barber says he believes Benton County to be one of the best-prepared areas of the country in the event of a mishap because of the frequency and scope of the exercises mandated by CSEPP and FEMA.
At the outset, SECOMM operated on the VHF radio channels that were licensed to the cities and county agencies it served. CSEPP funded an eight-channel analog 800MHz trunked radio system that had sufficient capacity for all of SECOMM's users and then some, and the plan was to have all users move to the 800MHz system. The law enforcement and fire agencies did make the move, upgrading their mobile and handheld radios. But when SECOMM proposed upgrading the 800MHz system from analog to digital, some of the fire service agencies balked at the cost. In 2006 a decision was made by the Benton County Emergency Services Executive Board to allow fire agencies dispatched by SECOMM to move from the 800MHz system back to the original VHF channels used prior to CSEPP funding the initial 800MHz system.
Maintaining full interoperability would have required that Benton County firefighters keep at least two radio systems in their vehicles and either borrow handheld radios when they deployed to assist other departments, or just do without handhelds, since most of the fire service agencies in the region still used VHF communications. They resolved the problem by keeping their primary communications on the VHF band, although some Benton County fire units working directly with CSEPP also had 800MHz radios.
In 2007, as the analog 800MHz system was reaching its end of life, CSEPP/FEMA helped fund the replacement of the analog system with a state-of-the-art digital 800MHz trunked radio system. CSEPP/FEMA funded a little over $7 million, and the cities of Richland and Kennewick, and the County of Benton funded an additional $4 million to bring this system online in August of 2010.
SECOMM can temporarily bridge communications between the 800MHz and VHF system when local law enforcement and fire service officers have to communicate between one another, but this is an imperfect solution. Communication between units can be limited to line of sight, not taking full advantage of the repeater network. The same line-of-sight problem occurs when law enforcement officers have to switch to the VHF Law Enforcement Regional Network (LERN) channel. The Washington State Patrol and most agencies in Franklin County, just north of Benton, use VHF radios and LERN to coordinate operations such as pursuits that cross jurisdictions.