New structures, improved technology for several sites

By Marcy Stamper

A 40-foot-tall wooden pole and a yurt that have housed the Methow Valley’s emergency communications equipment for half a century are being replaced over the next few weeks with new structures and modern wireless technology.

Once completed, the system will use microwave transmission instead of the existing system, which relies on physical wires that run underground, across bridges or in the air — all of which were vulnerable to damage from fires or other natural disasters, said Mike Worden, chief deputy of communications for the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Department.

“In a nutshell, what we had is very basic and limited — a ‘legacy’ system,” said Worden. Okanogan County’s needs for communications in an emergency have exceeded the old technology on a regular basis, he said.

“The microwave network will send audio signals and data from one side of the county to the other,” said Worden.

Moreover, because of the county’s topography, it’s important to have modern equipment that can send signals from one mountaintop to another. “We need to design for geography,” said Worden.

“The yurt is not a reasonably modern facility — it looks like the top of a grain silo,” he said. The wooden pole — basically a telephone pole — was replaced last week with a metal tower.

The project includes new microwave antennas on Flagg Mountain above Mazama, Goat Mountain near Alta Lake, and at a site in the eastern part of the county that will be shared with Ferry County. Okanogan County will also erect new towers on Tunk Mountain and Pitcher Hill above Okanogan to handle communications for the central and northern parts of the county.

While public-safety radio communications in the county were already transmitted wirelessly, Worden called it “dumb” wireless. “You couldn’t tell if the repeater was having technical problems or if the power was out,” he said.

The new technology will give emergency managers the capacity to monitor all functions. “We’ll be able to tell everything — is the door open, are the batteries going, is work necessary?” said Worden.

The replacement of the tower and yurt and installation of new radio and microwave equipment on McClure will be completed before it snows. Once the physical infrastructure is installed, technicians will be able to continue with some upgrades remotely, said Worden.

Second phase

A second phase of the project, which won’t be finished until next year, will allow the county to re-route emergency telephone circuits if needed so that 911 calls can still reach the dispatch center, said Worden. Under the existing system, if the fiber-optic network that carried 911 calls was out of commission, a dispatcher had to physically come to Twisp to answer the phone, he said.

The microwave system will carry communications for first responders such as law enforcement, fire districts, EMS, utilities and public works. The changes do not affect radio and TV broadcasts, cell-phone towers or internet transmissions, which also have towers on McClure, said Worden.

The county has been studying ways to create a modern, highly functional system to handle daily and emergency traffic for all types of emergencies since 2012, from “several collisions and house fires at once — or the whole damn valley’s on fire,” said Worden.

The county already has some microwave communications technology, which was installed eight years ago as part of beefed-up border protection in conjunction with the Vancouver Olympics, said Worden. The new microwave towers will complete this web countywide. The new microwave network is being constructed in partnership with the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), as was the border-protection project eight years ago.

The $3-million project is being paid for primarily through grants. The majority of that — $1.85 million — is from the Washington State Military Department disaster recovery account. The McClure upgrades are supported by a $400,000 grant from the Washington Department of Commerce. The remainder is from an Okanogan County Sheriff’s Department reserve fund and from WSDOT, said Worden.

Still on the county’s wish list is a larger dispatch facility, an emergency operations center, and modernized information technology that could run all county functions. Worden said they are taking their time to accurately define their needs and the cost of such a large project.

“We have needs but it’s important not to rush — we have to take our time and do it right,” said Worden.