PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. - Communication is everything for a police officer. His gun may be his most powerful weapon, but his radio is his best friend. It's his lifeline to dispatchers.
But increasingly, that lifeline isn't there in an officer's time of need. Across Pierce County, sheriff's deputies are encountering dead zones where their radios don't work. And even when they do work, transmissions are often scratchy, garbled or incoherent. That leaves dispatchers guessing about whether the deputies have run into trouble.
That's exactly what happened when Sgt. Nick Hausner and Deputy Kent Mundell were dispatched to a domestic violence call near Eatonville last December. Dispatchers at the law enforcement support agency, which handles police dispatch for Pierce County and area cities, heard an officer trying to radio in, but the call was inaudible.
The dispatcher radios back to the deputy: “If that's a unit for county, you’re completely unreadable.”
Dispatcher Durand Dace says it’s the moment police dispatchers fear - knowing there’s a deputy trying to radio in, without success.
"You have this immediate sense of kind of like panic, like you know something's just gone wrong but you have to try and figure out who it is," said Dace.
The next transmission that came in from the deputies was audible, and chilling. It was only four words: “I have been shot!”
But who was it? Dispatchers have no way of knowing who is in trouble.
"Which unit has been shot?” asks the dispatcher. When there is no response she decides to do a “roll call,” which means radioing each deputy and requesting a response. The roll call goes on for nearly a minute before 911 calls start coming in, reporting that there’s been a shooting. A neighbor tells the 911 center that someone next door needs help.
"He yelled out the door ... 'Call the cops, I've been shot,' there's two cop cars here," the caller said.
That's how dispatchers learn the location of where Hausner was wounded and Mundell was fatally shot.
The 911 caller asks: "Can you send ambulances?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’re going to do that,” responds the dispatcher.
The department says a better radio system would not have saved Mundell's life, but it would have allowed dispatch to send help to the officers almost two-and-a-half minutes sooner, when the first inaudible radio call for help was made.
That’s because if that same call had been made over a newer, 800 megahertz system, which is what many surrounding jurisdictions use, the dispatchers at the law enforcement support agency would have known exactly who was calling in. Because with the newer system, as soon as the deputy keys the mic, a code is sent straight to the dispatcher’s screen, identifying the unit. It's just like caller ID.
Many Western Washington police agencies moved to an 800 megahertz radio system years ago. The Pierce County executive says they've never had the millions it would take to make the upgrade.
But the union is now demanding action.
"Is it going to be acceptable to hear, 'sorry we can't afford it?'” Linda Byron asked Cynthia Fajardo, President of the Pierce County Sheriff’s Independent Guild.
“No,” responded Fajardo. “It won’t be acceptable to us. There has to be a way to make this happen.”
In the meantime, the sheriff's department is trying another in a long line of temporary fixes, installing repeaters in some cars. It’s expected to help boost communication in outlying areas, but it won’t solve all of the problems.
“We can continue to put Band Aids on it, fix a car here, fix an antenna there and boost power here, but in the long run we're going to have these problems until the system is brought up-to-date and is rebuilt and is done the right way,” said Sgt. Ed Troyer, spokesman for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office.
Police officers face unknown obstacles every day in their job. But they say their radios shouldn't be one of them.
Pierce County estimates it would cost anywhere from $17 million to $35 million for a new radio system.
The county executive says it may be to time to put a sales tax before the voters to pay for it.