LA's interoperable comms system: Big bucks, big payoff

Given the current economic crunch, many cities may not be able to get on board quickly


By Anne Louise Bannon

Interoperable communications could be called the Holy Grail of interagency cooperation, and it is almost within tasting distance for first responders in the Los Angeles region.

You can hear the excitement in the voices of a local fire chief and a sheriff's department captain.

Even the White House is reportedly watching as the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System (LA-RICS) moves forward.

This is going to be big.

Assuming, that is, that local governments can afford to come on board. Given the current economic crunch most cities are facing, that may not be happening as fast as agencies would hope.

"That's going to be the difficult position most of the small cities are going to find themselves in," said Chief Chris Sellers of the Culver City Fire Department.

LA-RICS is actually a two-part project that will not only make it possible for more than 80 public safety agencies to communicate with each other over radio systems, but to share data as well.

Last September, LA-RICS received a $154.6 million grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to implement the broadband portion of the project.

"The broadband system, which we are calling the LA-Safety Net, has been designed," said Scott Poster, interim executive director of LA-RICS.

What LA-RICS will do …
He explained that 260 sites are being developed for the system that will basically enable police officers to see where the fire trucks are on data maps from their onboard computers.

Paramedics will be able to upload all kinds of information to hospitals. Firefighters will be able to send real-time video of fires to other departments so resources can be better distributed.

"Theoretically, you would want voice interoperability," said Capt. Scott Edson of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, in charge of communications.

"You would also want data, so we can see where the fire engines are. We would want to see where they're fighting a fire so we have a geographical image of where to evacuate people. Anything that can save radio traffic and be put on a map."

Edson noted that most law enforcement agencies already have computers in their cars that can receive calls, download information from law enforcement databases, check for outstanding warrants, even check whether a car's expired registration tags mean the driver is still waiting for the new ones or hasn't paid the fees.

The new system will make it easier to stream video from the cars, as well as make it easier for the cars to get data from other agencies.
Poster said that because of the way the grant is structured, the LA-RICS broadband project will need to be built in 36 months, and that the project is on schedule. The sites for the system towers are currently being reviewed for environmental viability and other issues.

"We have very strict guidelines," Poster said, adding that unless something unforeseen happens, the project should be online on schedule. "We're looking pretty good."

The land/mobile communications system is taking considerably longer, with a five-year buildout plan. "We're building the infrastructure that the different subscribers can hook up to," Poster said.

But what will it cost?
But even though participating cities won't have to pay for the infrastructure, they probably will have to pay for new compatible communications systems, and given that most small cities are pretty strapped for money, thanks to the current economic slump and continued cuts in funding from the state, that could be a problem.

"Everybody truly believes in the concept," Sellers said. "The concern is will it meet our operational needs, and if the answer to that is no, where does it leave you? In these economic times, I don't know that the public is going to step up and pay the extra taxes."

Poster pointed out that cities already are spending money to maintain the communications systems they have.

"It's important for people to consider what they're already spending," he said. "I'm spending x amount and the new system costs y; what's the delta (difference)? Maybe y is cheaper than x. I understand the plight of the independent cities."

Part of the problem is right now, no one knows how much the land/mobile systems will cost, just because the project has simply not gotten that far in the process. Poster said that the Requests for Proposals have gone out, several submissions from vendors are being considered, and negotiations have begun with one of the vendors.

"We hope to finish the contract negotiations this June," Poster said, adding that none of the vendors under consideration have been excluded yet.

But as a result, there are no figures available as to the cost, so cities can only wait and hope they can pay the bill.

Both Sellers and Poster said that a lot of cities' communications systems are due for an upgrade, anyway.

"Many are at end of life," Poster said. "They need to be replaced."

With so much still unknown about the new land/mobile system, it's hard to say what will need replacing and what won't.

"Our city, like all the other cities, has a system that we have to keep up," Sellers said. "When will it be here? How much will it cost? How much will we have to purchase? Can our city afford it? Those questions haven't been answered."

Nor will they be, at least not until summer. In the meantime, both Poster and Sellers hope the numbers will work for the many cash-strapped communities in Los Angeles County.

"I think the goal is to make it attainable for everybody," Sellers said. "What makes it valuable is getting everybody on board and how do we make it so that everybody can be part of it."

Because when you're that close to the Holy Grail, you want it.

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Anne Louise Bannon is a freelance journalist, who is fully connected. You can follow her on Twitter www.twitter.com/ALBannon or follow her two blogs: on television for families, yourfamilyviewer.com (Twitter address: www.twitter.com/YrFamilyViewer) or her romantic fiction blog, whitehouserhapsody.com (Twitter address: www.twitter.com/WHRhapsody). Or email her at anne@annelouisebannon.com

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