Digital radios to improve communication between San Francisco, San Mateo counties 

When San Francisco emergency responders headed to the scene of the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion last September, their radios were useless for trying to talk directly to their Peninsula colleagues. The different radio systems used by the two counties forced San Francisco officials to use their cell phones to connect with San Mateo County responders, according to county officials.

The county hopes to improve the link with its northern neighbors starting next month, as tests begin on a new digital radio system that will let sheriff’s deputies, paramedics and other Peninsula officials talk directly with their counterparts in other counties.

But despite the push for the technology, most other Peninsula police agencies are keeping their analog radios amid concerns about the digital systems’ higher cost and questions about reliability. When the Big One hits, the ability to seamlessly connect with authorities from another agency will be a big plus, county officials say.

“If it’s a big enough event, you’re going to need people from outside, and you really need to talk to them,” said Capt. John Quinlan of the Sheriff’s Office.

After two years of work, the county recently completed the project’s roughly $9 million first phase, which involved constructing eight repeater towers throughout the county, said Steve Dupre, the project manager for San Mateo County. Most of the funding has come from federal grants, he said.

The county expects to spend a total of $25 million to $30 million on the system, which upgrades the county’s 10-year-old digital radios to a technology known as P25. San Francisco has already adopted the P25 standard and other counties are moving to it, Dupre said.

It will eventually be rolled out gradually to 1,500 users in the county — including sheriff’s deputies, public works employees, paramedics and others — assuming testing in April and May goes well, Dupre said.

Besides major disasters, the interoperability will be useful in more day-to-day activities, like a police pursuit over the Bay Bridge or gang initiatives involving multiple counties. Currently, officers have to use work-arounds like relaying messages through dispatchers or borrowing a colleague’s radio.

But other agencies say the move to the new technology is premature. Redwood City’s police department switched from analog to digital in 2004, only to go back to analog in 2008 amid concern over coverage gaps and poor performance inside buildings.

“The technology is just not ready for this,” said Capt. Dave Bertini of the Pacifica Police Department. “For the type of work we do, we don’t want to be beta testing things that are going to get people hurt and killed.”

Bertini said Pacifica has heard anecdotal reports that the digital signals degrade more easily and won’t penetrate certain buildings.

But county officials say the county’s digital system has improved since it was installed in 2001, and even analog has coverage gaps.

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Shaun Bishop

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