Calif. mobile center bridges wildfire communication gaps

By Paul Larocco
The Press Enterprise

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Two sheriff's deputies from different counties staff roadblocks at a major wildfire.

They're nearly shouting distance away, but under many circumstances their departments' disparate radio systems prevent communication.

"It's something as simple as that," said San Bernardino County sheriff's Lt. Glenn Grabiec. "We need to work together on these incidents but really don't have the ability to talk."

With the help of a new $300,000, grant-funded mobile communications post, officials from around the region say they have solved that problem.

California Emergency Management Agency's "Mobile Interoperability Gateway Unit," dubbed MIGU, will serve six counties in Southern California, including Riverside and San Bernardino.

It will be stored with the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department but also available to San Diego, Inyo, Mono and Imperial counties.

The size of a small camper, the unit attaches to the back of a Ford pickup and can bridge 22 separate two-way radio systems, on different frequencies, at once. That includes law enforcement, fire and public works agencies.

It also contains Internet, video teleconferencing and satellite capabilities.

The satellite was used to stream Thursday's announcement of the new system, done in San Bernardino, to officials in Sacramento.

Matthew Bettenhausen, the state emergency management secretary, said while similar capabilities exist at many local dispatch centers, the system's appeal lies mainly in its ability to be transferred anywhere within the six counties, including remote locations, within a couple of hours.

The system, which was delivered last month, was fully purchased with federal homeland security grants. It may also be used at search-and-rescue missions and multi-agency training exercises.

But mainly, officials said it lessens the likelihood that two departments with state-of-the-art tools in nearly every other facet of their operations won't be able to trade simple radio messages.

"It's huge," said Riverside County sheriff's Lt. Matt Aveling.

"You can have all the technology in the world, but if we don't have a way to communicate, it doesn't mean a thing."

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