Counties to create emergency radio system 

San Francisco, San Mateo, Contra Costa and Alameda counties are partnering to create a $307 million emergency radio system that will allow the region’s public safety and transit agencies to communicate on the same frequency.

In December, Congress approved $1 billion for "interoperability" communications funds, to be distributed to public safety agencies this fall. Grant guidelines for the money will be released next month, according to Laura Phillips, the head of San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management.

One of the conditions for using the funding will likely be that the systems are compatible with a new 700 megahertz band that the Federal Communications Commission will open in February 2009 for emergency communications.

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The high frequency, 700 MHz system is expected to have the capability of transmitting sound, but also data and video, holding the promise that agencies will be able to transmit records, stream video, send photos and other uses, including voice-related operations.

"We’re calling in an opportunity of a lifetime," Phillips said. "I've been in this business for 30 years and I have never seen the collision of spectrum, the funding and the willingness to collaborate."

Contra Costa and Alameda counties have been working on creating a joint communications system for about two years. San Francisco and San Mateo counties jumped on the idea about six months ago, in part due to a federal decision last year to make the Bay Area apply as a region for emergency preparedness funds, forcing cities to work together, Phillips said.

San Francisco’s emergency services officials were also motivated to upgrade their communications system after a Department of Homeland Security report, assessing the interoperability capabilities of 75 urban and metropolitan areas, released in January, gave San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo counties a collective grade of "C," Phillips said.

"We have higher expectations of ourselves," she said. "We want to be an ‘A’ student."

The proposed Bay Area Public Safety Interoperable Communications Initiative will cost approximately $307 million to implement, including $67 million already invested in communications infrastructure. The project will seek $200 million from the federal grant program, but the counties will also need to contribute local funding of $40 million in order to qualify.

The group is also open to other counties, such as Marin and Santa Clara, coming on board, Phillips said.

Some of the funding would be used to purchase new communications equipment, Phillips said. Some existing infrastructure, such as communications towers, could still be incorporated into the new system.

Next week, Phillips and other Bay Area emergency communications officials will meet with state officials to go over the region’s interoperability proposal.

"What they want to see is the regional systems being built, and to make sure they’re interoperable with state, federal and military users. That’s part of the vision," Phillips said.

Between its iconic nature, which makes it attractive to terrorism, and its location onseveral fault lines, the Bay Area has been identified as one of the top risk areas in the nation, according to Phillips.

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Bonnie Eslinger

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