Yakima County’s outdated police radio system could be a public safety risk, sheriff says

System updates, replacements could cost between $15 million and $20 million

YAKIMA COUNTY, Wash. — Yakima County Sheriff Bob Udell is working to replace an outdated radio communication system that doesn’t allow emergency responders to talk easily between different agencies.

Udell said those communication issues aren’t just inconvenient, but could cause safety issues for deputies, police officers, firefighters, medical personnel and the people they are trying to help.

“If it’s hard to communicate, that means our response times, the way we act, becomes delayed — and that’s not good for the citizens of Yakima County,” Udell said.

Udell said a new, modern system is needed to improve officer safety, interagency communication and response time.

Yakima County Sheriff Patrol Car Radio

Credit: Emily Goodell, KAPP-KVEW

Yakima County Sheriff Bob Udell said with the current radio system, a deputy has to search through more than 100 radio channels in their patrol car to find the one that will allow them to talk to the right agency. 

Deputies struggle to flip through radio frequencies, delaying emergency response

When someone calls 911 to report a crime, dispatchers contact law enforcement and other emergency personnel that might be needed.

Udell said with a modern communication system, the dispatcher could easily, quickly and remotely create a group call including all the first responders headed to the scene.

With the current system, a deputy has to search through more than 100 radio frequencies in their patrol car to find the right one.

“On the surface, it looks like we can talk to the space shuttle, but we can’t because it would require the deputy to literally search for the frequency he or she needs to talk to a different agency,” Udell said.

When a deputy is driving quickly with lights and sirens to get to an emergency, Udell said it’s not practical for them to be searching through radio channels. He said they have to relay messages through dispatchers instead.

Udell said if a deputy wants to ask a Yakima police officer to meet them at a certain location at the crime scene, they have to call 911 dispatchers at the sheriff’s office, who pass the message on to the city’s dispatchers at SunComm, who can then relay the message to the police officer.

The county does have one channel — LEARN — that is available to all emergency responders, but they have to be within a few miles of one another for it to work and might not be able to hear dispatch at the same time.

“Again, we can talk together, but try to think about a deputy that’s in a stressful moment, looking at his portable, flipping through frequencies and channels, trying to decide, ‘Which one should I be on if somebody is screaming?’ It’s not what we want to do,” Udell said.

Sheriff says interagency communication problems are a safety risk during large-scale incidents

Udell said that can be especially problematic during large-scale incidents, when different agencies from all over the county are trying to quickly relay information to one another.

“I think the best example of that failing in this county happened two years ago, when we had what looked like a school shooting in the West Valley High School,” Udell said. “It wasn’t. It was some kids, thinking it was funny to try to prank another kid into thinking that there was a shooting.”

However, no one knew it wasn’t real when the call came out and dozens of first responders — police officers, deputies, fire engines, ambulances and other emergency personnel — rushed to the scene.

Yakima County Sheriffs Office Dispatch Center

Credit: Emily Goodell, KAPP-KVEW

Yakima County Sheriff Bob Udell said with 911 dispatchers tied up trying to relay messages between agencies, there could be a delay in answering 911 calls from victims or witnesses that might have critical information about an incident.

Udell was in Seattle when the first report came in and he started receiving calls immediately from deputies reporting there was a possible school shooting, followed by more calls from deputies receiving new information indicating it was a hoax.

“The calls transformed into, ‘what a mess,'” Udell said. “We had a breakdown in information sharing between the [dispatch] centers, the officers, deputies, fire — it was very tough for them to hear what we were doing.”

Udell said while the situation was a “communication nightmare,” it could have been much worse if the shooting threat had been real. He said it definitely would have taken longer for law enforcement to communicate about the shooter’s location.

With dispatchers tied up trying to relay messages between agencies, Udell said there could be a delay in answering 911 calls from victims or witnesses that might have critical information about the incident.

In that case, Udell said the shooter might have had time to attack more victims and medical personnel would have been delayed in finding and treating the existing victims.

Yakima County’s older police radio system, lack of full coverage reportedly an issue

Udell said some parts of the police radio system are up to 30 years old and there isn’t coverage everywhere in the county. Deputies use a minimum of four different radio frequencies to communicate every day and have to switch channels depending on their location.

That means a deputy in the Lower Valley may not be able to talk easily with someone from their agency, if the person is in Yakima at the time. If they’re driving from Grandview to Naches, the deputy could have to manually switch the frequency four times in a row.

Udell said there’s also gaps in coverage when deputies are using their portable, handheld radios, which might fail when deputies walk into warehouses, orchards or rural areas of the Lower Valley. He said in those cases, deputies might have to rely on spotty cell phone coverage.

That’s especially problematic when deputies are responding to urgent medical calls alongside first responders; Udell said if someone is having a stroke or heart attack, even a few seconds’ delay matters.

“Let’s say you’re at your house out in the county and you have a long, dark driveway and you have a family member that’s in a serious medical emergency. The deputy shows up and he spends some time trying to find your driveway, but he’s in a remote area where — with the current radio system — he can’t really hear dispatch. There’s a delay right there. He finally finds your address, he comes down the driveway and he realizes that the ambulance can’t find your house either. He tries to call them, but he can’t; he doesn’t know what frequency to use for the ambulance. If he’s out of his car on a portable radio and there’s no coverage, he’ll have to use his cell phone, hoping it gets out or even the phone from the person’s house. And the seconds are ticking by as help can be just 200 yards away. We can do better. We can do much better,” Udell said.

New, modern police radio system could improve safety for first responders, community members

Udell said an ideal system would allow deputies to easily connect with other agencies every day, anywhere in the county, without having to manually search for the right frequency or rely on dispatchers to pass messages back and forth.

During large-scale incidents, he said dispatchers could quickly create a “talk group” — essentially a group call that includes everyone heading to the scene — which would allow first responders to focus on getting to the emergency and finding the people they need to help.

Udell said law enforcement officers across the county have expressed their support for a new system. He said firefighters have a system that’s newer and works fairly well for them, so any new system the county might get should be compatible with their existing system.

The change might require a complete overhaul and replacement of the whole system; however, Udell said it’s more likely that they’ll be able to keep existing equipment, add to it and replace some of the older technology.

“Other counties have had systems like this for years,” Udell said. “And now, it’s time.”

Yakima County commissioners funding engineering study for new law enforcement radio system

Yakima County Commissioner Amanda McKinney said the board of commissioners has been in conversation with Udell since last year. This year, they agreed to spend $150,000 out of the county’s general fund to pay for an engineering study.

“We have invested funds in this study that will provide us with the best recommendation on what type of radio system is going to work best for us,” McKinney said.

McKinney said the study will help commissioners to ensure whatever new technology they might purchase is necessary, works throughout the county and is compatible with other existing communication systems, like the one used by Washington State Patrol troopers.

“Obviously, safety is a priority, not only for the public, but also for those emergency responders, so there really is a great need to fill in those gaps,” McKinney said.

The engineering study is currently underway. Udell said they’re creating an inventory of all radio equipment in the county, including radios, handhelds, mobile car units, repeaters and other equipment.

“They’re going to look at everything and then they’re going to tell us, ‘Alright, this is what we’re seeing, here’s some proposed solutions to get to what you want, which is interoperability between agencies and to increase coverage,'” Udell said.

Udell said the project could take several years and cost anywhere from $15 million to $20 million, likely paid for through a combination of grants, county funds and state and federal funding.

“And then the commissioners could choose to put on the ballot a two-tenths of 1% communication tax, which is already done by the majority of counties across the state,” Udell said. “Making this all work is kind of complicated, but extremely doable.”

McKinney said she’s hopeful that they’ll be able to fund the project using existing resources and state grants, without resorting to putting a new tax on the ballot.

“This is something that’s not unique to Yakima County,” McKinney said. “There is legislation that’s being proposed in Olympia right now to address this very issue.”

McKinney said the project would be expensive, but that’s why it was important for the county to invest in the engineering study before making concrete decisions. She said the engineering study should be complete by the end of 2022.

“It’s like designing a home … You don’t want to start building it before you actually complete your design,” McKinney said. “We’re going to design it, so that when we do purchase something, it’s going to end up fulfilling our dreams and making it again safe for everyone to live in Yakima County.”