Photo: iStockphoto.com.

Photo: iStockphoto.com.

The platitude "every cloud has a silver lining" suggests that good can come from even the worst situations. The attack on the Twin Towers and the Hurricane Katrina disaster brought to the forefront the necessity of communications interoperability, or more simply put, being able to talk to each other. Benton County, Wash., has something very close to a model of interoperability in the form of its Southeast Communications Center, known locally as SECOMM.

Most of the world thinks of Washington as a gloomy, squishy place because of the rainforest conditions on the more populated western side of the state that includes Seattle and Tacoma. That isn't the case for the relatively arid two-thirds of the state east of the Cascade Mountains that receives 300 days of sunshine each year. Benton County lies on the southern border of this part of the state at the confluence of the Columbia, Yakima, and Snake Rivers. Surrounded by farmland, the population center of Benton County is the "Tri-Cities" of Kennewick, Richland, and Pasco. The first two cities are in Benton County; Pasco is across the river in Franklin County. About 250,000 people live in the Tri-Cities environs.

If you don't pay close attention, you won't notice when you move between cities or into an unincorporated area of the county, which means that public safety incidents frequently overlap jurisdictions. Communications for most police, fire, and public works operations in Benton County are handled through SECOMM, which is part of Benton County Emergency Services (BCES). BCES operates from its own building in Richland, tucked behind a Walmart and a Home Depot and unnoticed by most residents. They've been there since 1997, when they moved from their previous home in the basement of Kennewick City Hall.

SECOMM came into being in 1977, when Benton City, Kennewick, and Richland decided to merge their individual dispatch centers into a single operation. At the time, Benton City had its own police department, but it was eventually dissolved in favor of the Benton County Sheriff's Office furnishing police services. The police department of the City of West Richland is also served by SECOMM, as are the fire departments of Richland and Kennewick, three districts of the county fire department, and the Benton County Sheriff's Office. Emergency medical services are provided by the fire departments serving each community.

Agriculture, including the largest wine industry in the United States outside of California, plays a significant role in Benton County's economy, but principal industry is with the activities at the Hanford Site northwest of Richland. From 1944 to 1987, Hanford produced most of the plutonium used in U.S. nuclear weapons. Today, the 586 square miles of the site are controlled by the U.S. Department of Energy, which oversees the cleanup of the decommissioned nuclear reactors and radioactive waste storage there.

Hanford is also home to a working nuclear power plant run by Energy Northwest. The recession hasn't had the impact experienced by most of the country, as work proceeds at Hanford without interruption. The cleanup job is so massive that some people who will retire from "remediation" of the site have not yet been born.

Many people would be horrified at the thought of living so close to so much dangerous material, but local residents aren't put off by Hanford or the Umatilla Chemical Weapons Depot, located just south of Benton County across the river in Oregon. This U.S. Army installation is about to close after decades of disposal of mustard and nerve agent munitions stored in reinforced concrete "igloos" in the Oregon desert.[PAGEBREAK]

Jim Barber, the Benton County Emergency Services communications manager, in the SECOMM switcher/radio room. Photo: BCES.

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.[PAGEBREAK]

Benton and Franklin county law enforcement agencies don't operate on the same radio channels, but they do share data. The counties created the Bi-County Police Information Network (BIPIN, pronounced bye-pin), which serves as the records management system (RMS) for police operations in both counties.

The City of Pasco may reside in another county, but residents of the other two of the Tri-Cities don't notice it much. There are two bridges spanning the Columbia River that connect Kennewick and Pasco. It's common for residents to work in one city and live or shop in another. Richland is adjacent to Hanford and hosts the largest employers, Kennewick has the largest shopping mall, and Pasco has the commercial airport. All three cities have hospitals. It makes sense that the area law enforcement agencies would work closely, since so many cases span jurisdictions.

BIPIN drove a change in the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system used by SECOMM. SECOMM worked on a paper-based card system until 2000, when they acquired their first CAD system from Hitech. Pasco police were using a RMS from Intergraph that was also adopted by Kennewick and Richland PDs and the Benton County Sheriff's Office when BIPIN was created. Information from the Hitech CAD didn't flow seamlessly into the Intergraph system, and the CAD data was a critical component of many case records. SECOMM eventually migrated to the Intergraph CAD product to facilitate data exchange between it and the police agencies it serves. Although the law enforcement agencies in the two counties share records data, the dispatch centers don't. The communications centers in Franklin County exchange information with SECOMM only by voice landline and cell phones.

One interoperability barrier common in many areas is the use of different radio codes and jargon. A "10-10" in one jurisdiction is a fight, while in another it's a private residence. SECOMM never had to contend with this issue as all area agencies have used plain speech as far back as anyone remembers. Code phrases are very limited, and used mostly for information that isn't broadcast over the radio, such as details of a bomb threat.

Although the recession hasn't hit Benton County as hard as it has other areas of the country, public funds are still tight. The loss of CSEPP funding will be a challenge for BCES in the coming years. Presently, much of the funding for SECOMM is pro-rated between what BCES called the "Big Three" (the cities of Kennewick, Richland, and Benton County) according to calls for service. The City of Kennewick is responsible for about half of the traffic handled by SECOMM, with the other half divided between Richland and Benton County.

There's little conflict within the fire and law enforcement disciplines with regard to communications. SECOMM has a separate communications manual for fire and police agencies, and departments seem content to abide by the procedures set down there.

SECOMM handles its recruiting through Public Safety Testing, just as most public safety agencies in Washington and parts of Alaska and Idaho do. Public Safety Testing charges a fee to applicants to take written (and in the case of police and fire applicants, physical abilities) tests, but the results are submitted to multiple agencies where the applicant wants to be considered. The savings in not having to travel to multiple sites to test for individual cities and counties greatly outweighs the testing fee. At the time this article was written, SECOMM had just completed a recruitment cycle and was about to put some new telecommunicators to work.

Jim Barber has nothing but praise for the people who work at SECOMM. "In 38 years, this is the most professional organization I've had the privilege of working with," he says. "The people here are very well trained, thanks to our supervisory staff. They do things that good communicators should do. They're not glorified secretaries, as dispatchers in some agencies are treated. This is a world class operation. It's the kind of place I've wanted to work at my entire career."

Tim Dees is a retired police officer and the former editor of two major law enforcement Web sites who writes and consults on technology applications in criminal justice. He can be reached via [email protected]

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