Calif. Bay Area responders still not on same radio frequency

Progress has been hampered by high costs, intergovernmental wrangling, multilayered bureaucracy and technology that's still evolving


By Josh Richman, Thomas Peele and John Woolfolk
The Contra Costa Times

SAN FRANCISCO — Among 9/11's most heartbreaking revelations was that the New York City police, firefighters and medical personnel who rushed into the burning Twin Towers couldn't talk to each other by radio, leading to mass confusion and scores of unnecessary deaths.

That hastened a nationwide call to ensure that emergency responders everywhere could communicate with each other anywhere at any time, especially when lives are at risk.

Yet a decade later, the nine-county Bay Area remains far from that goal, relying instead on a spotty web of untested emergency systems and no way of knowing how — or if — it will work. Progress has been hampered by high costs, intergovernmental wrangling, multilayered bureaucracy and technology that's still evolving.

The stakes are high. Oakland police and officers from other agencies had difficulty talking to each other in November when hundreds of people rioted following the verdict in the BART officer shooting of an unarmed Hayward man.

Dozens of police agencies patched different radio systems together on a temporary network, which didn't work reliably, if it worked at all. And at best, radios were on a two-second delay — not good in hot tactical situations.

The need for a seamless network was driven home less than a year after 9/11, when firefighters and other emergency workers couldn't communicate by radio as a massive construction blaze at San Jose's Santana Row shopping center sparked fires in a nearby neighborhood.

Even spurred by those events and 9/11, Bay Area governments are not working toward one, seamless regional radio system, but are crafting what they call "a system of systems" they hope will work in a disaster.

"We know what we need to do," said Barry Fraser, of the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management of his county's efforts. "We're not there yet, but we're working on it."

If and when that system is finished, there are no guarantees that police rushing, say, from San Jose into Fremont, or from Daly City into San Francisco, or from Contra Costa County across bridges into Marin or Solano counties, would have unfettered radio access where ever they go.

Can you hear me now?
The Department of Homeland Security has identified the Bay Area as one of 60 urban centers in the United States where emergency commanders should be able to talk to each other within an hour of a major incident. But "first responders, not just leadership need to have the ability to communicate with one another" in disasters, according to a report on national preparedness issued last month the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.

The Bay Area is years from that goal — although some areas are approaching it on a more local level.

Next year, all first responders in Alameda and Contra Costa counties will switch to one radio system, but it won't include the East Bay's biggest city, Oakland, where officials said they couldn't wait and recently activated their own $18 million radio system.

But will Oakland's system communicate freely with the new, $70 million two-county system, which relies on radios from a different manufacturer than those in Oakland?

It should, said Ken Gordon, Oakland's interim Information Technologies director. Interfaces between new radio systems elsewhere in the country have worked, he said.

But connections between the two systems have "not been sufficiently tested," said William McCammon, director of a joint powers authority that will soon manage the rest of the emergency radios in the two counties.

For now, the best way to make sure Oakland's radios work with thousands of others in surrounding communities is to reprogram each of the hand-held units — a process that takes about 20 minutes per device, said Orval Badger, of Oakland's wireless services department.

Putting permanent interfaces in place would be "phase two" of the planning — a phase for which there is yet no money or firm plan, Gordon said.

Big systems, big price tag

Everyone is working toward building emergency communications systems that meet national standards, so they should be able to tie in during emergencies. Some, like BART's and those in the East Bay, are almost completely paid for. Others still need big money — San Francisco has paid for only about 14 percent of its system and needs to find $34.5 million more to complete it; the South Bay's eventual price tag could be twice that. Millions in homeland security funding offered after the terrorist attacks have been spent, so officials are hoping to secure additional grants to pay for the radio systems.

In San Mateo County, first responders already have some shared radio channels, but the new digital system it's building at first will serve only the sheriff's department, some other county agencies, emergency medical responders and Redwood City.

Steve Dupre, a county manager assigned to the radio project, said all other local police agencies have their own old radio networks and the county has not yet started convincing them to migrate onto its new system.

Building out the entire San Mateo County system — including 19 towers and handsets for the currently participating agencies — will cost about $27 million, Dupre said; only about $11 million has been secured and spent so far. The county is scrounging for grant funds to make up the difference, so with completion still a somewhat distant dream, little thought has been given yet to connecting this system with neighboring counties — a technology that Dupre, like the East Bay's McCammon, believes "is still being developed, all the pieces are not yet there."

In Santa Clara County, jumbled communications during 2002's Santana Row fire helped give rise to a radio channel to which all of the county's local public safety responders can tune in if needed.

It has been used "fairly regularly" in over the past five years, said Michael Milas, who is charge of the system.

But that system remains a low-cost fix with limited capacity that can be overwhelmed by too many users in a major incident.

The county's ultimate goal is a single voice system. Its backbone will be a digital microwave system that replaced San Jose's old analog system a few years ago; the city's police and fire radios now use it daily as do some other municipal police and fire agencies. But $100 million is still needed to equip the rest of the county's first responders with compatible radios and to build a new public safety radio system.

"Ultimately, your progress is paced by funding," Milas said. "Unfortunately, the bigger solutions are the more expensive ones."

Meanwhile, San Jose Police Chief Chris Moore has been leading a number of national public safety organizations in their advocacy for the creation of a country-wide public safety broadband network. Moore and other major law enforcement officials are asking congress to dedicate a block of the nation's wireless broadband network to create a system that will one day - experts say the technology is about a decade away - allow police, firefighters and other emergency responders to speak, send blueprints or videos across a shared, secure network.

Anne Kronenberg, the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management's executive director, also chairs the Approval Authority for the Bay Area Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), which manages more than $150 million in federal homeland security grant funding for 10 Bay Area counties. San Francisco, a consolidated city and county, had it easy in that it's just one, unified government, with no need to build rapport elsewhere. With 1989's Loma Prieta earthquake and 1993's 101 California St. office massacre as wake-up calls, San Francisco in 2000 deployed a single radio system covering all of its police, firefighters, emergency medical personnel and sheriff's deputies.

"We have a really good handle on intracounty communications," said Fraser, the city's interoperability project manager.

But get outside San Francisco and it's a different matter. Fraser's description of San Francisco's situation fits much of the Bay Area: If San Francisco first responders go Alameda County, Marin County or San Mateo County to render aid in some emergency, they can reprogram their radios to connect with that other county's command center and first responders — but they no longer can talk to their own system. Doing both at the same time would require one of those interfaces, on which opinions of reliability vary.

And like the South Bay, San Francisco is limited by cost in how fast it can replace its first responders' old radios with digital handsets; only about 900 of its 7,000 radios have been replaced so far, Fraser said

Officials across the Bay Area are collaborating on a "BayWEB" broadband emergency communications network for sharing data, from building schematics to photos to fingerprints; the backbone should be in place by 2013, although it'll take much longer to scrape up money to put the mobile devices — separate from radios — in first responders' hands. They hope eventually to have voice communications via broadband, too — a reserved public-safety network apart from commercial networks that could get jammed during major crises — but everyone seems to agree with Fraser's assessment that the technology "really isn't there yet." And again, there's bureaucracy and money to consider: The joint powers authority for the Bay Area Regional Interoperable Communications System, which includes BayWEB, just met for the first time last month.

"There were lot of steps we had to take to get where we are today," Kronenberg said. "This is the biggest thing we've done c and I don't think the technology was there in 2004. I think we're exactly where we should be right now."

The situation in the Bay Area isn't unique. Communication breakdowns during Hurricane Irene's pummeling of the East Coast provided the latest example.

"We're still having the same situation where there are cities all over the country that cannot communicate in times of disaster,", said Rep. Laura Richardson, D-Long Beach, the ranking Democrat — and only Californian — on the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications.

"We've got to continue to be diligent, we've got to make the investment just like we would make the investment in a bridge or anything else important to our infrastructure," she said, but that requires a fiscal commitment "and unfortunately right now it's not there."

Copyright 2011 Contra Costa Newspapers

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