Public safety departments to join regional communication system

systems anna vignet
Anna Vignet/Senior Staff

The city of Berkeley and UC Berkeley have entered into contracts to migrate their public safety radio networks onto a regional system by 2013, a move that is expected to facilitate better communication with other cities and organizations around the East Bay.

The migration to the regional network was prompted in part by a Federal Communications Commission mandate that requires all nonfederal public safety radio communication to operate on narrowband channels –— meaning those with a bandwidth that does not exceed 12.5 kilohertz — by Jan. 1, 2013, in an effort to promote greater efficiency in radio channels and thus support additional channels and more users.

Per recommendation from the city manager’s office, the Berkeley City Council voted July 19 to join the East Bay Regional Communications System Authority rather than a radio communications service currently being developed by Oakland. Berkeley’s city manager report determined the regional system to be the more cost-effective and conducive to interoperability — meaning the ability for staff from different jurisdictions and agencies to communicate with one another.

According to the recommendation from the city manager’s office, the East Bay system will allow this kind of regional communication for personnel from different organizations across the authority, all while using their own equipment. Without the regional system, separate jurisdictions could encounter problems when trying to communicate over the radio with outside agencies because of differences in their systems.

The city will migrate police, fire and mental health radio communications onto the regional system. So far, on the campus side, only UCPD has been confirmed to migrate radio networking onto the authority.

The authority currently has 38 member agencies including Alameda County and Contra Costa County, over 20 cities and towns around the East Bay, four special districts and the California Department of Transportation.

UCPD Lt. Marc DeCoulode said the regional nature of the East Bay system will be especially helpful when dealing with mutual aid between police departments and in large-scale disaster response.

The plan outlined by the city manager also estimates the first year costs of the city’s entrance into the system, including up front procurement and implementation costs of necessary radio equipment at about $2.6 million. That figure also factors in an annual $280,000 operating fee charged by the authority, which the plan intends to cover with funds from Measure GG, a fire protection and emergency response tax enacted on home improvement in 2008.

For both campus police and the city, the plan’s requirement for new radio equipment does not come at a bad time. DeCoulode said current UCPD radio equipment is “well past its normal life expectancy” to the point where Motorola — the company that manufactured the radio equipment originally — no longer manufactures the specific system’s parts.

The recommendation to the City Council also noted that much of its radio equipment “is reaching the end of its useful life.”

The authority has officially been in development since 2007 and is projected to have all of its six cells completed and operational by June 2012, according to William McCammon, the authority’s executive director. McCammon said that the cells which are already running have shown to supply “better coverage” than the old system, something he attributes in part to its newer equipment.

So far, the authority has raised about $48 million in grants. On top of this, the two counties covered by the authority lent the project $17 million in the form of bond issue which will be repaid through the system’s annual operations fees. The authority still needs to raise about $2 million in grants, an amount which McCammon is confident it can achieve based on the authority’s previous grant average of $4 million to $5 million per year.

In addition to federal narrowbanding requirements, the switch over to the regional system will put the city into compliance with another FCC mandate set to go into effect in 2016 which will require interoperability for agencies that have received federal funding for updates to their communication systems.

Sarah Burns is the lead crime reporter.