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Voters to decide tax for emergency radio upgrades in St. Louis County

By Rachel Lippmann


St. Louis – The scene at 7440 Zephyr Place in Maplewood was total chaos when fire Chief Terry Merrell showed up on the morning of July 21, 2008.

A sniper had shot and killed a rookie firefighter and trapped four others, turning a simple truck fire into a major emergency with dozens of first responders. But World War II-era radio technology meant police, fire and EMS couldn't talk to one another, even if they were standing next to each other.

"During a bulk of the incident, it was a patchwork effort of the cell phones, one radio channel, another radio channel," Merrell said. "We ended up in situations where people ended up in the wrong places, and possibly could have also been victims of this terrible incident."

The radios also had no secure channel, said Merrell. No one knew if the shooter was monitoring their communications, so they resorted to cell phones, which delayed efforts to put out the flames and the ultimately successful rescue of the trapped firefighters.

"We eventually did it, but unfortunately we lost another home next door, and damage to the home on the other side, as well as damage to the property across the street from the truck fire," the chief said.

Proposition E-911 will pay for a new radio system that solves both problems Merrell faced that July.

The current technology places several limits on first responders. Right now, radios can only handle a few frequencies. If emergency officials travel outside the narrow range covered by that frequency, communications get difficult, said county police Chief Tim Fitch.

"If one of my police officers working in North County wants to talk to the Florissant Police Department, which is right next door to our service area in North County, the way they have to do that is, they have to call our dispatcher, who then calls their dispatcher, who then calls their officer and relays a message. Their officer answers that message who calls his dispatcher who calls our dispatcher who calls our car and relays the message," Fitch said. "What does that take? It takes time."

In the new system, a computer would pick the first open channel it finds from a pool of hundreds, and, depending on the frequency, route the transmission to the correct department. That allows officers traveling anywhere in the region - and eventually in the state - to talk to their home dispatcher. The new system is also much more secure.

Federal Communications Commission mandates are driving the push for a county-wide solution. By 2013, all emergency radios have to "narrow band"- that is, reduce their power to stay within an assigned frequency - to cut down on interference with departments on nearby frequencies.

"Many of our local governments are going to face substantial budget issues in trying to meet these new FCC requirements, and we're going to need to do this without a revenue source," said Webster Groves mayor Gerry Welch. "If each of us does this individually as departments and municipalities, we still will not be able to communicate with each other."

The $.001 sales tax will pay off the bonds needed to purchase new radio equipment for every police and fire agency in the County. After 20 years, county officials said, the tax rate could be lowered to take in maintenance and operations costs only.

The bonds will also pay for upgrades to the 911 system to fix another problem that has the attention of emergency responders - cell phones.

Chief William Karabas dialed 911 while standing behind dispatchers at the Florissant Police Department. The dispatcher's screen showed an address at New Halls Ferry and Lindbergh - a half mile from the police department. It was the location of the nearest cell phone tower.

Cell phones can transmit the user's exact location, Karabas said, but the current 911 system can't process that information. Sixty percent of 911 calls now come from cell phones.

"There was a fire call that came into our fire district several years ago," Karabas said. "The call bounced off a tower in Rolla, MO. It took fifteen minutes to get it straightened out. Meanwhile, this people's house is on fire."

The bonds will also fund the replacement of the region's tornado warning sirens. Everything together will cost $100 million.

Very few dispute the need to update the region's emergency communication systems. The opposition is to the funding mechanism. A sales tax increase of a tenth of a cent doesn't sound like much individually, said Fenton mayor Dennis Hancock.

"But when you put in on top of the cent sales tax that was approved last fall, add to that the cent sales tax that Metro is going to come back and ask for in the spring, pretty soon you start talking about real money," he said. If approved, Prop E-911 would raise the total county share of the sales tax to 2.2 percent.

Hancock wants to use the $20 to $25 million in estimated new revenue from the River City Casino in Lemay, which is set to open in April. But county officials say that puts the funding burden on a small portion of unincorporated South County.