Bay Area officials tout new emergency radio system for first responders

Contra Costa Times

Emergency services officials on Monday unveiled a proposal for a new emergency radio system that would link Alameda and Contra Costa counties and surmount glitches that sometimes make it impossible for first responders to communicate across city and county boundaries.

But officials who devised the plan say it still must overcome resistance in some jurisdictions due to a belief that joining a regional system means losing local control of emergency communications systems. System proponents say the belief is grounded in misunderstanding rather than facts.

"This is as close as we've ever been to getting something that brings these two counties together," said Alameda County Fire Chief Bill McCammon. "We're at the point now where we need to go out and sell this" to officials across the East Bay.

The proposal aims to remove blockages in emergency communications that have plagued East Bay police and fire agencies and other first responders on a regular basis, leading to deep concerns that radio breakdowns will hinder a coordinated response to a large-scale regional disaster.

A Times survey last year found that emergency radio problems caused by incompatible technologies and overcrowded frequencies abound across the East Bay.

For instance, the survey found, Richmond police cannot speak directly by radio to sheriff's deputies in their county. Oakland police cannot radio colleagues from their two biggest neighbors: Berkeley and San Leandro. Police in Walnut Creek, Pleasant Hill, Concord, Clayton, Pittsburg and Martinez cannot radio directly to firefighters in their cities.

"We're in a mess," McCammon said Monday while taking part in a presentation to the Public Protection Committee of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors.

The only sensible solution, officials say, is a common radio system used by agencies across the East Bay. Getting more than three dozen agencies to buy into such a proposal poses an immense challenge, but the time may never be better, given the infusion of federal homeland security funds over the past four years. Under federal guidelines, some of this money must be used to address regional needs.

The plan presented Monday is a result of two years of discussions and calls for 38 jurisdictions -- 34 cities, the two counties, the Contra Costa fire district and East Bay Regional Parks -- to share in paying a tab estimated at $40 million. The costs borne by each jurisdiction would be based on percentage of the area's total population.

Decisions on how the system would be built and operated would be made by a 13-member board of directors that would include an executive director and six representatives from each county.

The $40 million figure represents the portion of a two-county system that currently is unfunded. Federal homeland security grants have been pooled to pay the remainder of a total system cost estimated to be as high as $70 million.

Officials said creating an "interoperable" system is crucial in preparing for a large scale disaster, a point driven home by communications breakdowns that plagued the response to Hurricane Katrina last month and were blamed for the deaths of as many as 100 firefighters at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

In addition, local responders encountered similar problems during the regional response to the 1991 Oakland hills fire.

Experts pin the blame for communications problems on radio manufacturers, who routinely design their equipment with proprietary parts and software so that incompatibility with systems designed by rival companies is commonplace.

Another problem, they say, is a long-standing public-sector mindset that places local needs over the regional.

Local officials cite a recent project in San Diego and Imperial counties, which joined together to build an $80 million regional radio system linking more than 200 agencies. Officials from San Diego, in fact, are scheduled to visit the East Bay next week to offer their views on the Alameda-Contra Costa proposal.

The proposal calls for cities, counties and other participating agencies to pay off the system over 15 years, contributing financially due to each jurisdiction's piece of the region's total population of about 3.4 million.

Livermore, for instance, would be asked to contribute $906,162 of the total project cost, based on its population of about 78,000, or 2.27 percent of the two-county total.

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