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07/23/2013 – Jeff Horseman, Staff Writer – The Press-Enterprise

Technical problems continue to delay the launch of a $172 million radio network intended to bring Riverside County’s public safety communications into the 21st century.

The Public Safety Enterprise Communications System is now expected to come online in late September for the county’s non-public safety departments, and the Sheriff’s Department should be added in December. The network, which takes advantage of 50 technologically advanced radio towers, is already three years overdue.

County officials hoped the network would be in use by late March, but there was a problem that prevented transmissions from being immediately received. At the time, the network was expected to go online within four months after contractor Motorola fixed the problem.

Despite Motorola’s efforts, “the county determined that the system problems continued intermittently,” county spokesman Ray Smith wrote in an email. “For example, the system might be busy but not indicate to users that it was busy. So, there was no indication that a broadcast did not go through.”

“At other times, the system would indicate it was not available for use but would suddenly become available without any indication of how/why the problem was resolved. Voice transmissions sometimes also were garbled.”

While the problems aren’t constant, “once is too often when someone’s life depends on their radio,” Smith wrote. “The system will not be put in place until it operates properly and consistently.”

The fixes aren’t expected to add to the project’s budget because Motorola will pay to upgrade the network’s computer system, Smith wrote.

The latest problems are another setback for the county’s goal of improving communication for police and firefighters in the field.

The county Board of Supervisors in 2007 allocated $148 million to build the new network. The current network of towers is considered outdated, and officials said certain parts of the county are in “dead zones.” It’s so bad in some areas that Sheriff Stan Sniff has said deputies resort to using cellphones to talk.

Once it’s up and running, the enhanced network should boost radio coverage from 63 percent of the county to almost 100 percent. Data will be able to be transmitted through the new network, which will be accessible to public works and other non-public safety departments — a boon, officials say, during natural disasters.

Originally, the network was supposed to be finished in 2010. But slower-than-expected environmental reviews and negotiations to acquire land for the towers pushed back the timeline and the price tag eventually grew to $172 million.

The county also wants cities with their own police and fire departments — Riverside, for example — to help shoulder the cost of running the network. Operational costs last year were projected to go from $6.7 million a year to $14.2 million annually once the new network is active.

Talks with other agencies about signing up for the network are moving ahead, “But the county does not have signed agreements with outside agencies at this time,” Smith wrote.