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Fixing local 911 system would cost Jackson County residents

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Voters will decide in November whether to spend $28 million on a new radio system for the 911 dispatch center and first responders.

The measure would cost 9 cents per $1,000 of assessed value — or $18 per year for the owner of a home assessed at $200,000.

Located near the Medford airport, Emergency Communications of Southern Oregon, or ECSO, answers 911 calls for all of Jackson County and Crater Lake National Park. The center also dispatches police, firefighters and paramedics.

“The radio systems that are used here currently are extremely old,” said Michael Mecham, a journeyman radio technician with Day Wireless Systems who works on the dispatch center’s communications equipment.

Most of the radio equipment at the center is at least a dozen years old, with some parts up to 30 years old, he said.

After a push by the Federal Communications Commission, many dispatch centers and first responder agencies have converted to digital equipment.

ECSO still is using analog equipment.

Manufacturers have stopped making replacement parts for old analog systems, Mecham said.

Once ECSO uses up any remaining parts that are still out there, it won’t be able to repair aging pieces of radio equipment, he said.

“If they die, they die. And we’ll lose communications with field units for police, fire, emergency services. And it’s a dangerous situation,” Mecham said.

Margie Moulin, ECSO director, said technicians spend hours hunting for replacement parts.

“So currently we look for replacement parts on eBay or on Craigslist — anywhere that we can find them from other centers that have replaced their equipment,” she said.

ECSO serves two-dozen fire and police departments, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, Southern Oregon University, Oregon Department of Forestry, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Crater Lake National Park.

Moulin said some agencies, including the Medford and Central Point police departments, have upgraded to digital radio equipment.

When police communicate with the dispatch center, digital signals they send have to be converted into analog for dispatchers to understand what they are saying. Analog messages dispatchers send out have to be converted to digital.

“It’s muffled. So it makes it more difficult for us to understand. From car to car, it’s crystal clear. From car to dispatch, it’s not,” Moulin said.

Dispatchers and police end up sending messages back and forth that they can’t hear each other and need messages repeated, she said.

Incompatible equipment means the dispatch center and the agencies it serves can’t communicate effectively during wide-scale emergencies like wildfires, officials said.

Moulin said the outdated system has other challenges, especially in rural areas like those patrolled by sheriff’s deputies.

Signals are sent from various mountaintop repeaters, including Roxy Ann and Soda Mountain. Deputies have to search for the best signal and choose from different repeaters, even if they’re in the middle of an urgent situation, Moulin said.

A new system would automatically connect first responders to the best repeater, she said.

The current system also has coverage gaps that would be closed with new technology, Mecham said.

Many Jackson County residents live or recreate in areas with limited or no radio coverage, officials said.

ECSO and first responders wound up with a hodgepodge of new and old, digital and analog after several local 911 dispatch centers merged into one.

The system wasn’t designed to be countywide, but evolved into the single dispatch system over time, officials said.

Moulin said the agencies served by ECSO pay for more than 80% of the dispatch center’s budget already. A 911 tax on phone bills makes up most of the rest of the budget.

The agencies don’t have the money to pay for a complete overhaul of the radio communications system, Moulin said.

If voters approve ballot measure 15-186 and the $28 million in funding, the money would pay for a digital radio system in the dispatch center; 1,800 vehicle and hand-held radios for all the agencies served by ECSO; towers and other equipment.

According to an explanation of the ballot measure approved by the Oregon State Secretary of State’s Office, “Continued use of the current system would increase the potential of an unfixable failure of the emergency communications radio system.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneThe tower at the Jackson County Emergency Communications Center in Medford.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneWorkers have been trained to take both calls and dispatch services at the Jackson County Emergency Communications Center in Medford.