Berkeley police, fire departments to synchronize communications

On Tuesday, the Berkeley City Council will decide which communication network the city police and fire departments will join to synchronize communications throughout the Bay Area.

Per mandate by the Federal Communications Commission, all non-federal public safety radio systems must migrate to narrowband channels — meaning the bandwidth of a radio message does not exceed 12.5 kilohertz — by Jan. 1, 2013. If an agency does not meet that deadline, it faces the loss of communication capabilities.

Berkeley has two options — the East Bay Regional Communications System Authority or the communication system used by the city of Oakland. The council’s decision may be influenced by the financial differences as well as purported benefits of each system.

Though both networks meet the technical and operational needs for the city, extensive analysis and discussion determined that joining the East Bay system would be the most cost-effective and financially manageable option for Berkeley, according to Acting Public Works Director Andrew Clough. Additionally, both the Berkeley Fire Department and the Berkeley Police Department are in favor of joining the East Bay system.

Kathy Neal, a proponent of partnering with Oakland, encouraged the council not to rush into making a decision at its last meeting and advocated for the Oakland system on the grounds that it is “better, faster and cheaper.”

Berkeley Fire Chief Debra Pryor said at the meeting that although either system would function and “do what we need it to do,” the East Bay system provides the coverage the city needs today.

“The Oakland system would be something that we would have to actually negotiate and establish with them in order to get the coverage that we needed from a fire aspect,” Pryor said at the meeting. “We feel pretty strongly that this is the right decision based on the information that we have and the research that we have done over a couple of years, and we’re confident with the recommendation coming forward from the fire perspective.”

In further support for the East Bay system, BPD Sgt. Mary Kusmiss said an important aspect of that system is the 37 partners that are already on board and the support of public safety officials.

“We feel that this regional system gives us a greater capacity during a fire, natural disaster and/or public safety crisis that is regional to be able work well together and to develop a strategy to manage a large-scale situation,” she said at the meeting.

Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan said at the meeting that either system will be an improvement on what is in place now but that he has yet to have anybody recommend anything other than the East Bay system.

The cost of joining the East Bay system and replacing all of the necessary radio equipment is about $2.5 million for the first year, with an estimated annual cost of $280,000, according to the Office of the City Manager.

But Councilmember Jesse Arreguin said that although city staff has proposed the annual cost, he still questions the security of the estimate.

According to Arreguin, the Oakland system is already up and running, whereas the East Bay system is not and will not be until at least the summer of 2012. He added that by joining that East Bay system, Berkeley will be locked in and must pay all financial obligations associated with the system.

“Can (the East Bay system) really project, at this time, the long-term projected costs and resulting financial obligation that Berkeley will be responsible to pay for as the project progresses, is designed, developed and operated over the longer term?” Arreguin said.