The East Bay Regional Communications System Authority is once again setting the standard in terms of contemporary public-safety communications being driven by politics, high-finance and ego. The EBRCSA is refusing to allow interoperability with the non-Motorola P25 system operated by the City of Oakland. Is this another example of vendor influence, or is this incredibly bad judgment solely the responsibility of local politicians?
OAKLAND — Bad blood between Oakland and a consortium of nearly every city and public safety agency in the East Bay is threatening to prevent first responders from communicating seamlessly during emergencies — putting police officers, firefighters and the public at risk.
The East Bay Regional Communications System Authority, acting against the wishes of its executive director and at least one member agency, has refused to program Oakland public safety radios to work on its new network, which covers all of Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
The decision blocks Oakland from tapping into the regional system for mutual aid and joint operations unless the city pays millions to become a member.
Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, who sits on the authority’s 23-member board, insisted it wasn’t using mutual aid access as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Oakland.
“We’re not the bad guy,” he said. “Everyone else has paid to be a member and, quite frankly, Oakland needs to do the same.”
But the authority’s stance on mutual aid is unprecedented and irresponsible, radio experts say.
Not only does it renege on an earlier pledge to the Alameda County grand jury that the authority would give Oakland access to its mutual aid channels, called “talk groups,” the decision flies in the face of a post-9/11 federal initiative that funded radio upgrades so that local first responders from different agencies could easily communicate with one another in a crisis.
The East Bay’s $72 million digital radio communications system was built primarily with federal grants. It was designed not only to communicate seamlessly on mutual aid calls with Oakland’s digital system, but with other digital systems throughout the Bay Area once they are up and running.
“There is no other system I’m aware of anywhere in the country that doesn’t offer mutual aid talk groups to nearby agencies,” said John Powell, UC Berkeley’s first emergency manager and the former chairman of California’s Statewide Interoperability Executive Committee.
Talk group benefits
With mutual aid talk groups, Oakland police and firefighters would simply have to flip a switch on their radios to be able to communicate anywhere in the East Bay with officers from every agency on the region’s powerful new system, which includes almost all of its neighbors and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office.
The talk groups also would solve communications issues that have plagued joint operations such as law enforcement efforts during the Occupy protests.
Without access, Oakland’s first responders still would be dependent on older mutual aid channels that have limited range and offer limited ability for responders to stay in contact with dispatchers.
In a natural disaster, Oakland likely would have to wait to receive dozens of the authority’s radios from the sheriff’s office, said Bill McCammon, the authority’s executive director.
“Not having each other on talk groups is a real detriment to multiagency incidents being well-coordinated and well-managed,” Powell said. “The citizens are the ones that end up losing because of delays and all the things that end up happening when you can’t talk to each other.”
History of frustration
The East Bay authority is still annoyed at being rebuffed by Oakland nearly a decade ago.
While the rest of the East Bay worked together to build a joint radio network, Oakland chose to upgrade its system and compete against the authority for grant money.
The authority’s 41 member agencies ended up financing $17 million of the $72 million system, which became fully operational in Oakland in October.
Oakland’s $18 million in upgrades and new radios all came from grants, but its system, which also serves Piedmont, has functioned poorly and still needs about $4 million in infrastructure improvements.
Oakland once again is considering joining the regional authority, but the dispute over mutual aid could be a deal breaker.
The authority fears that setting up the talk channels would provide a disincentive for Oakland to join its system, while the city says that the authority’s stance shows how little weight Oakland would carry on the authority’s board, even though it would be the largest member.
“The fact that the executive director made a recommendation in the best interest of (public safety), and it was denied sends a red flag to us in terms of how this board may act in the future in terms of our interests and our needs,” City Administrator Deanna Santana said.
Haggerty said the city needs to learn how to be a team player. “Oakland always thinks they can do something better when they don’t have the capacity to do it, and then they cry ‘poverty,’ ” he said. “At some point, people get a little bit offended.”
The Alameda County grand jury raised concerns two years ago about whether the two dueling communications systems would work together.
The authority responded that there was nothing to worry about because it would program its mutual aid talk groups on Oakland radios.
Eight months later, the authority’s board voted to allow BART access to its system — but not Oakland. Instead, it instructed officials to once again try to persuade Oakland to join.
Oakland offered the grand jury a different solution — using a technology known as ISSI to link the two systems. Although ISSI is already in use elsewhere, Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern, who also sits on the authority’s board, said the regional group’s technology experts weren’t confident that it would work.
“In our opinion, our system is superior, and we’d like Oakland to be on our system,” he said.
The city is considering the authority’s latest offer to join by paying about $800,000 upfront and $1.48 million a year in maintenance costs. Oakland’s participation would in turn lower maintenance costs for the other agencies.
Tests are scheduled later this month to see how Oakland’s radios, which are made by a different vendor, perform on the East Bay’s system.
With the authority’s member agencies scheduled to migrate to its system by July, Oakland officials hope the board will reconsider its stance on mutual aid.
Already, the Alameda County Fire Department is backing Oakland’s inclusion. “It would be to our benefit and the benefit of our residents that when Oakland comes into our jurisdiction, that they would be able to talk on our system,” Division Chief Andy Smith said.
“There should be some wiggle room for mutual aid use,” he added. “And I hope there is.”