Muskegon County police & fire officials urge public to back 911 surcharge during May 7 special election

Local police and fire department leaders are urging voters to approve on May 7 a phone surcharge that would fund what emergency officials are describing as life-saving upgrades to Muskegon County’s deteriorating 911 dispatch system.

Voters will be able to cast their ballots on the 911 phone surcharge proposal during the special election being held tomorrow, May 7 in Muskegon County. If the surcharge passes, residents would see their per-month, per-phone surcharge for the county’s 911 system increase from 42 cents to $2.75. It would be levied on any device able to access 911, including land lines, cell phones and tablets. The surcharge would, if approved, last for 13 years, beginning July 1 of this year.

The proposed $31.2 million upgrade would allow Muskegon County Central Dispatchwhich last year handled about 170,000 calls to 911 and generated about 260,000 calls for public safety responders from 15 fire departments, 11 police agencies and two ambulance servicesto switch from its analog system to an 800 megahurtz digital network, which 74 of Michigan’s 83 counties use.The upgrade would help Central Dispatchwhich is not a part of Muskegon County government nor funded by the countyto address a myriad problems it currently has, including decades-old equipment and communication dead zones or severe radio static that prevent police, fire and other public safety responders from reaching Central Dispatch to, for example, call for additional help. The upgrade would include five new radio towers; a $7.57 million equipment replacement fund; 1,700 mobile and portable radios for police, fire and ambulances; 200 new in-vehicle computers; and more.

“This is one of those things where it’s expensive; it’s for the good of society, and everyone will benefit at some point in time from an enhanced communication system for 911,” Muskegon Police Captain Shawn Bride said.

“Right now, we can’t communicate effectively,” Bride said. “The system we have is antiquated. We have areas where officers and deputies are unable to communicate clearly with Central Dispatch. I would put this akin to, in the age of smartphones, we’re playing with rotary dial phones. It’s extremely frustrating when an officer is inside a building, a school, a home, and they can’t broadcast out or they can’t receive. Beyond the frustration is the sheer inherent danger of what happens when we can’t communicate with Central Dispatch.”

For example, Bride said a neighbor dispute call could turn into an armed subject callwhich would require an officer to connect with Central Dispatch in order to request backup.

“An officer is now fighting for their life or taking rounds; they may get one opportunity to key up their mic and call for help,” he said.

Voters previously rejected a nearly identical ballot proposal in November, but emergency officials said they believe it will pass this time around because of a significant increase in communication with the public.

“If it doesn’t pass, we would continue to have these issues at critical moments that could impact people’s safety, lives and property,” Muskegon Heights Fire Chief Christopher Dean said.

Issues with the current system can be seen in the video below.

Shawn Grabinski, the executive director of Muskegon County Central Dispatch, noted that the current analog system makes it seem as though Muskegon is “on an island, and it’s not a good island to be on.” By the end of 2019, all of the counties surrounding Muskegon will be using digital systems, which will make it increasingly difficult for Muskegon to communicate with themsomething that’s particularly problematic for areas on the county’s bordersuch as Fruitport, Ravenna, Montague, and Whitehallthat would benefit from other counties’ help during emergencies, such as a particularly large fire.

“Our ability for our first responders to talk to dispatch is a struggle; their portables are old, we’ve got dead zones, we’ve got a lot of static issues,” Grabinski said. “Responders are on the scene saying they need more firefighters or an ambulance, and we can’t hear the request. Sometimes they have to repeat themselves two, three, four times because the static is so bad.”

Bride said Muskegon is “eight to 10 years behind where I hoped we’d be.”

“Hats off to Shawn [Grabinski]; she made this old system run probably two lifetimes,” he continued. “She’s kept this thing on life support. This is a decade-old problem, at least. Now is the time to do something about it.”

Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. Connect with Anna by emailing or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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