SCAPPOOSE, Ore. (KOIN) — These are not the words you want to hear from officials and citizens when you’re talking about your local 911 system:

“Our existing radio system is old and tired,” said Mike Fletcher, the executive director of Columbia 911 Communications District.

“Our first responders don’t even have radio coverage on parts of Highway 30 in our cities,” said Scappoose City Councilman Tyler Miller.

“We’re sitting here. We’re spinning,” said 911 Board Member Henry Heimuller while talking about picking a replacement system.

“If we had a tragedy like the one in Texas, would we all be standing around saying if we only had contact with the police,” Scappoose homeowner Carroll Sweet said.

Their concern and frustration is about why police officers and firefighters often can’t communicate with each other and their fears about what will happen in a major tragedy.

In Columbia County, police officers, firefighters and paramedics often have trouble doing basic radio-to-radio communications in emergencies. It appears the fix to this problem could still be years away.

‘Absurd having such outdated technology’

If you’re a parent in Columbia County, you want to know what may happen if something goes terribly wrong in a school.

Casey and Whitney Kilker, parents in Columbia County, Oregon, September 2022 (KOIN)
Casey and Whitney Kilker, parents in Columbia County, Oregon, September 2022 (KOIN)

Casey and Whitney Kilker are excited their daughter just started 1st grade in Columbia County. But they are concerned to just learn her school may be in a partial dead zone for police and firefighters to communicate by radio.

Whitney said that is simply “absurd. And I think the community just isn’t aware of it because it’s not something that you would ever think would happen in 2022, having such outdated technology.”

The Columbia 911 Communications District hired a consultant to evaluate its deteriorating system. In that report, it generated maps of radio communications coverage, which Councilman Miller brought to the attention of the board during its Aug. 25 meeting.

The color coding on those maps show green for areas where police and firefighters should constantly be able to communicate with each other by radio inside buildings, and yellow where radio coverage should be good outside of buildings.

Over and over in Columbia County, there are areas not covered by green or yellow.

Councilman Miller recorded static examples where the signals were very weak. Miller recently pointed out the coverage gaps to the Columbia 911 Communications District board. He’s been a longtime critic of the agency and their equipment that is now more than 20 years old.

“We cannot afford to have our children’s safety at risk when an emergency unfolds in any of the schools throughout Columbia County that lack public safety radio system coverage on the outside of the school or inside the school building,” Miller said.

Board members agree the radio communications equipment needs to be replaced.

At a March meeting of the board, Scappoose firefighter Rob Anderson said, “I currently have no faith in our current radio system. You know, it’s like last week I’m standing at Highway 30 and Havlik in the middle of the intersection because there’s a car wreck, and I cannot talk to dispatch with a portable radio.”

Problem for years

In 2015, Cindi Turula, who was the Technical Manager for the Columbia County 911 Communications District, wrote an email that said:

“It is difficult to hear that our radio system seems to get worse and worse every day. I am not trying to be snarky… I honestly feel helpless to explain or even understand myself why the radio system seems to be failing where it hasn’t before.”

Now, seven years later, an advisory committee is still trying to pick the system that’s best for the county’s mountainous terrain — and pick one they think voters will pay for.

“I can say no consensus,” said Mike Russell, who is both the Columbia 911 Communications District Advisory Committee Chair and the Columbia County Public Works director, adding, “and it’s been difficult to provide you with a singular recommendation.”

Board member Henry Heimuller, who is also a county commissioner, said, “We’ve never had anyone, even though I’ve asked for it a number of times, that have said the difference, the delta between $11 million and $30 million is going to save even one life.”

An August 25, 2022 meeting of Columbia 911 Communications District 1 (KOIN)
An August 25, 2022 meeting of Columbia 911 Communications District 1 (KOIN)

At the August meeting, the board heard from Scappoose Schools Superintendent Tim Porter.

“I am here to encourage you to collaborate with whomever you need to in order to ensure that the replacement radio system has sufficient coverage in and around campus in our schools,” Porter said.

But a follow up email to KOIN 6 News from Porter illustrates the difficulty of defining the coverage gaps.

They “…tested radio coverage in multiple locations within each building. I am pleased to report that there were no 911 radio coverage issues in our facilities.”

St. Helens Schools Superintendent Scott Stockwell wrote an email that said, in part: “In the past, inside our buildings, we have had no issues. We are reaching out to the fire marshal to have him test in our buildings as there has been a growing concern within the community,” but noted the new middle school does have a system to retransmit police and fire radios inside the building.

Fletcher, the county’s 911 executive director said it’s “a valid concern” that parents will be horrified when they hear there’s little radio coverage around some of the county schools.

We also heard from the superintendent of Rainier School District, Dr. Joseph Hattrick, “I reached out to my facility director who informed me that although we do not have repeater’s for first responders radios, we have never heard them having issues with radio communication when they have been on-site,” he said.

In a follow-up email Fletch told KOIN 6 that he and a representative of the radio system vendor, Day Wireless conducted exterior radio testing at each of the Scappoose School District facilities and provided video recordings.  “We conducted test at all four points of the compass (North, South, East & West) of each school,” wrote Fletcher “Each test resulted in ‘Loud and Clear’ 100% success.”

‘Grossly expensive’

The reason the decision keeps getting postponed, Fletcher said, is likely cost.

“I think out of an abundance of caution of making the right decision, these are grossly expensive systems. Tens of millions of dollars,” he said. “And just my take is that the board doesn’t want to make a mistake in choosing the wrong system.”

Mike Fletcher, the executive director of Columbia 911 Communications District 1, August 25, 2022 (KOIN)
Mike Fletcher, the executive director of Columbia 911 Communications District 1, August 25, 2022 (KOIN)

According to the census bureau, there are only 42,000 adults in Columbia County and just under 20,000 households. That is not many people to pay for a bond that will cost so much money.

That means a new system is probably still several years away.

“Your family’s safety depends on it, their family’s safety depends on it. And all of our first responders’ safety depend on it,” Councilman Miller said. “This is not a complicated issue. This is not a political issue.”

Another part of the problem is there is a disagreement over who is responsible for good radio communications around schools and whether it’s the school districts that should be paying for it.

There is also a bitter disagreement between the city of Scappoose and the 911 district over cooperating on an engineering report on a preferred system.

The 911 board will hire a technology expert to guide the process from here.