Change needed in cell phone regulations | Editorial

We’ve all experienced the lack of service, lost calls and occasional roaming charges that come with using a cell phone in the San Juans. Most of the time, it’s just a hassle. But as the death of a tourist illustrated two weeks ago, lack of adequate cell phone service can be deadly.

When a Canadian man collapsed during a group bike ride near Moran State Park, the 911 call was routed to a Canadian emergency call center, adding minutes onto local EMTs’ response time. When Orcas Island emergency responders finally arrived on the scene, the man had been unconscious for 15 minutes. They were unable to revive him.

The Orcas Island Fire Department says it is common for 911 calls made on a cell phone to go to Seattle or Canada — the phone just picks up the strongest signal.

We think our fire departments should partner with the chambers of commerce and Washington State Ferries to advertise the alternative to calling 911 on a cell phone: 378-4141.

Calling this number will take you directly to the sheriff’s dispatch in Friday Harbor, 24 hours a day. Locals and tourists need to know this number. The ferry system and island businesses should distribute the fire department’s fluorescent stickers advertising this number.

But 378-4141 only works if you have service. Which brings us to the larger problem: no cell service at all for those in an emergency.

Orcas Island Fire Chief Mike Harris said service can be improved by repeater antennas, negating the need for large, unsightly towers. But nothing can be done until county cell rules are amended.

We think the county has taken far too long to examine cell phone regulations. Our fire departments have been urging the County Council to improve service for years.

In April, the council approved removing local rules on personal wireless communications facilities from the Comprehensive Plan and inserting them into the Unified Development Code (UDC). Creating a permitting process and design standards that reflect advancements in wireless technology is seen by the county’s Cell Phone Task Force as crucial to allowing wireless providers to build a more effective network. Because the Comp Plan can only be modified once a year, the council felt these goals would be better achieved under the UDC. This is the first step.

The council will not make actual changes to cell regulations until, most likely, January. Council Chairman Richard Fralick says it could be sooner, depending on how fast the Community Development and Planning Department can re-work the ordinance and put it before the council.

We think this needs to happen sooner, rather than later. In the meantime, remember 378-4141 — or hope you only have a medical emergency near a land line.

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