Warning lights not flashing in some Bellingham school zones as city works toward fix


City crews have been busy fixing the signs outside four schools where the flashing lights that alert drivers of 20 mph school zones have stopped working.

The lights on signs near Whatcom and Kulshan middle schools and Carl Cozier Elementary have not flashed at all in recent days, Ted Carlson, Bellingham public works director, said Thursday, Sept. 22.

Crews were able to utilize a sign once used near the now-closed Larrabee Elementary to replace another out-of-commission sign near Wade King Elementary, Carlson said. That sign, he added, should now function properly.

The problem, Carlson said, stems from the system some of the lights use to flash at the appropriate times. Those lights were programmed on AT&T’s 2G cellular network, which AT&T no longer supports.

Lights on signs at other schools, like Birchwood, Sunnyland and Roosevelt elementary schools, run on a different system and are functioning properly, Carlson said.

Upgrading the malfunctioning signs to run on the newer 3G network, Carlson said, means getting replacement hardware from the manufacturer. The city has ordered those parts – but so have many other cities across the country dealing with the exact same problem, Carlson said.

At the end of the day, drivers need to be aware of school zones. And I think most people recognize that.

Ted Carlson, Bellingham public works director

The manufacturer, he added, has been “scrambling” to fill the orders.

“They’re telling us 2 or 3 weeks and we just continue to check in with them so we just don’t have control over that,” Carlson said. “I know it’s not satisfactory to all parents and I can appreciate their concern but that has been the process to date.”

Officials for the cities of Ferndale, Lynden and Blaine said the problems did not affect signs there. Spokespeople for the Meridian and Nooksack Valley school districts also said they have not had similar problems.

The Mount Baker School District has one flashing sign outside Kendall Elementary said Ben Thomas, the district’s director of finance and operations. District workers have made occasional fixes to that light, Thomas said, but no blackouts have ever occurred.

Bellingham crews have found a temporary work-around, Carlson said. The malfunctioning signs have been replaced with signs telling drivers to slow to 20 mph when children are around. The flashers on those signs have also been covered.

Even in areas where the lights aren’t working properly, Carlson said, the onus is on drivers to slow down near schools. Law enforcement, he added, has been notified about the issue at a time when police officers and sheriff’s deputies are adding extra patrols near schools.

“At the end of the day, drivers need to be aware of school zones,” Carlson said. “And I think most people recognize that.”