Police request federal radio bailout

Published on Thu, Jul 4, 2002 by Meg Olson

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Police request federal radio bailout

By Meg Olson

Police chiefs from Whatcom County border communities met with U.S. congressman Rick Larsen during his recent visit to Blaine, asking for his help in keeping them connected with the federal communications systems that have dispatched emergency calls in Blaine, Lynden and Sumas for 50 years.

“We need help to be able to stay compatible,” Blaine police chief Bill Elfo told Larsen at a July 1 meeting. The dispatch center for the Blaine Border Patrol sector, located at their H Street headquarters, has since the 1970s answered 911 calls for Blaine, Sumas and Lynden as well as dispatching the Border Patrol and coordinating information sharing between other federal border agencies. Over the last three years the Department of Justice wireless management office has proposed major upgrades to the border patrol radio system that will leave local police agencies out in the cold if they can’t afford the new technology.

Blaine deputy chief Mike Haslip said the new digital radio system, which provides seamless cross-country communication and encryption, is due to begin testing in late summer. “They hope to begin rolling it out in the third quarter with hopes of flipping the switch at year-end,” he said. Haslip estimated it would cost the city $150,000 to buy new equipment compatible with the system for each officer and car, plus base stations.

Chief Jack Foster of Lynden said it would cost his department $120,000 and Chris Haugen from Sumas said they were looking at $60,000. “We don’t want to get caught in an expensive beta test that doesn’t work and gets replaced in a year or two,” Haugen said. “Our small communities can’t handle that.”

Foster said the alternative of joining up with the county 911 was not appealing. “They’re pretty much maxed out,” he said. Elfo added costs of joining that system would be similar to upgrading equipment, but would mean reverting to 1960s technology.

“The key for us would be the loss of inter-operability with the border patrol,” he said, adding that the Border Patrol and police in border communities provided backup for each other and often responded to the same incidents. “If we don’t have a way to communicate back and forth we could end up in a shootout with the Border Patrol,” he said.

“These are the people we work with up on the line and it’s crucial we talk to each other,” Haugen said. He added they had strong support from all levels of the Border Patrol to preserve the relationship, under which local officers provide backup to Border Patrol agents in the field and to other border agencies. “Not a week goes by we don’t catch one of their port runners,” Elfo said.

“Your reality here is turned into your cities and north to the border rather than south to the county,” Larsen acknowledged. “First and foremost the office of wireless management needs to know this relationship exists and needs to continue. Second, you need to get these radios and not be on the hook for a beta test that may not continue.” Larsen said he would look into grant funding within the department of justice to help the cities afford the new system.

“We need to find a funding source, perhaps under the mandate of homeland security, that will at least pay for the beta test and possibly the bulk of the final system,” Elfo said. He added that the Border Patrol also needed to add more support staff to Blaine.

“We’ve been crying for years for more Border Patrol agents and now it’s happened and their dispatch can’t handle the volume,” he said. “They’ve put more resources in the field but nothing to back it up..

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