Communicating on emergency radio 

When the post 9/11 emergency readiness reports began coming out, many in the Bay Area were dismayed to learn for the first time that our local police and fire departments, transportation agencies, ambulances and hospitals were largely unable to communicate with each other by radio. All used incompatible equipment, transmitting on different frequencies.

And last year, when the federal government began requiring the Bay Area to apply as a region for Homeland Security preparedness funding, The Examiner strongly suggested the top priority for the 2006 grant should be a start toward standardizing regional emergency radio communications, instead of being scattered into smaller projects.

The money available then might not have been enough to make much of a dent in upgrading first-responder radio compatibility. But in December, Congress approved $1 billion for "interoperability" communications funds, to be distributed to public safety agencies this fall.

Washington’s guidelines for grant eligibility will be released next month, and presumably will require compatibility with a new 700 megahertz band that the Federal Communications Commission will open in 2009 for emergency communications.

This high-frequency, 700 MHz band will be able to transmit not only sound, but also data and video, so that public safety agencies will be able to transmit text files, photos and even stream videos instead of being confined to voice communications.

It is encouraging that San Francisco and San Mateo counties already are partnering with Contra Costa and Alameda counties in the East Bay to create a $307 million emergency radio system that will put all their public safety, medical and transit agencies on the same communications frequency. The group hopes that more of the nine counties in the Bay Area, such as Marin and Santa Clara, will join in.

This projected $307 million cost for the Bay Area Public Safety Interoperable Communications Initiative includes $67 million already invested in existing infrastructure such as communications towers, which can be incorporated into the new 700 MHz system. The counties will need to contribute $40 million in local funding to qualify for $200 million from the federal program.

Next week, the Communications Initiative officials will meet with California authorities to examine whether the Bay Area proposal would be sufficiently interoperable with state, federal and military users. The Department of Homeland Security analyzed emergency communications interoperability of 75 urban/metropolitan areas and issued the report card in January. San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo counties earned only "C" astheir collective grade.

We are counting on an "A" no later than 2009, as soon as the 700 MHz federal frequency is available. For a region as vulnerable to earthquakes and tempting to terrorists as the Bay Area, that is the least the public should expect.

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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