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Bills could improve extreme weather response

by TIMOTHY FAIRBANKS-CLOUSER, Herald Legislative Writer
| January 13, 2022 1:03 AM

A bill requiring the Washington Military Department to create and implement an extreme weather response grant program moved through a public hearing with state legislators without opposition on Wednesday.

The Washington State House Community & Economic Development Committee convened for hearings on House Bills 1620 and 1703. The two bills address the needs of Washingtonians in times of emergency.

In the last few years, Washington discovered it’s not exempt from extreme weather events, said Adam Wasserman, Washington State Emergency Management Division acting deputy director.

The state should address obstacles to resources available during extreme weather crises before we encounter them later, Wasserman said.

A grant program created through HB 1620 would assist with the costs of establishing and operating heating and cooling centers, said Rep. Mari Leavitt, D-University Place, the bill’s primary sponsor.

House Bill 1703 also assists in costs for transportation to the centers, supplies for cooling congregate living settings, providing temporary emergency housing and other safety-related needs.

“Ensuring that there are shelters in addition to warming and cooling centers,” Wasserman said, “is a local responsibility and critical to life and safety.”

The need for shelters is very unpredictable because, from a research standpoint, it’s hard to plan for when these extreme events may happen, said Briahna Murray, contract lobbyist, testifying in support on behalf of the city of Tacoma.

The Washington Military Department funded grant program would better equip Washington with the resources needed during these scenarios. Murray asked legislators to consider outreach efforts so vulnerable populations know the resources available to them in these extreme weather events.

Typically, smaller and more rural communities are more affected by extreme weather, Leavitt said, and the state would assess which areas need the most support and allocate the grant program’s funds appropriately to meet those needs.

This year, the summer’s heat wave and winter’s freeze were a wake-up call for many people, said Maureen Howard, a Tacoma Pierce County Coalition to End Homelessness volunteer.

Hundreds of vulnerable people in Howard’s community have suffered because of recent weather patterns; she hopes to see that end. Howard urged the state to create a list in its emergency response plan that identifies shelterless people at risk during extreme weather events.

“In Pierce County, Jason died in the June heat wave,” she said. “A man whose name we don’t yet know froze to death in December.”

The state needs to ensure no one dies in the event of a weather emergency, Howard said.

House Bill 1703 made it through the hearing without opposition, as well. The bill concerns modernizing the statewide 911 emergency communications system to keep up with technology as it evolves.

The bill changes language to remove the word enhanced when describing 911 systems in the Emergency Management Act. Wasserman said legislators added the word “enhanced” a few years ago to reflect a new system now becoming outdated.

The state should not let the language of past legislation present unnecessary boundaries for the future and modernization of lifesaving programs/systems, Wasserman said. HB 1703 provides a pathway for programs like the 988 call line being established for behavioral health crises, he added.

If passed, counties could participate in multi-county-wide 911 emergency communications with other adjacent counties; by participating, counties may request a Washington State Patrol public safety answering point (PSAP) be designated as a primary PSAP for specific locations. Participation would allow for more efficient responses and the ability to locate an emergency call more accurately, Wasserman said.

House Bill 1703 also introduces the possibility for Washingtonians to face a new tax.

Washington state imposes an E-911 excise tax of up to 25 cents per month to landlines, cellphones and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services lines to fund the state’s E-911 system. Under HB 1703, counties may impose an additional E-911 excise tax of up to 70 centers per month for each phone or service line.

Any county-imposed E-911 excise tax associated funds would go toward that county’s emergency services communications system.

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