Major obstacles in communication of first responders

September 7, 2011 5:33:43 AM PDT
We mark two anniversaries this week: one year for the San Bruno pipeline explosion and 10 years for the 9/11 attacks. Many emergency responders say despite all that's happened, there are still major obstacles for them to communicate with each other.

In some cases the issue is a lack of money to buy the needed equipment. In others, there has been a lack of full cooperation between local governments. The short answer is many Bay Area cities are not ready to communicate with one another or even themselves in the event of a large scale terrorist attack.

Remember the Santana Row fire in San Jose just one year after 9/11? Santa Clara County found its radio communications jumbled during the Santana Row fire. The system put in since then allows all county agencies to communicate, but it has limited capacity and can be knocked out if too many responders try to use it at the same time.

Over in Oakland last year, officers had trouble talking to law enforcement from other agencies during the riots after the verdict in the trial of BART officer Johannes Mehserle. Oakland has recently activated its own $18 million radio system. But next year, when all first responders in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties switch to a one-radio system, Oakland won't join them because it has its own system. Connections between the two systems have not been sufficiently tested.

In San Mateo County, they're about $27 million short of what they need to build 19 towers so all first responders can be on the same page. Radio project manager Steve Dupre says practically all police agencies have their own radio networks.

San Francisco, energized by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the 1993 office massacre at 101 California Street, deployed a single radio system for all first responders. Now if those first responders go outside of the city to help Marin or Alameda or San Mateo counties, they can reprogram their radios to connect to their agencies, but then can't talk to their own command center.

Experts say the technology allowing all Bay Area first responders to communicate across a shared, secure network is 10 years away.


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