California’s public safety agencies maintain 14 separate systems, in varying conditions, to deliver on their missions throughout the state. Several agencies experience coverage gaps and use old equipment that’s difficult to maintain, while others are looking toward 2013 narrowbanding requirements and adding data capabilities to their working voice networks for interoperability, according to an assessment of agency systems included in a statewide plan released Tuesday, Oct. 19. The California Public Safety Radio Communications Strategic Plan seeks to provide goals and objectives to ensure that the state has up-to-date communications technologies in place to aid departments’ daily work as well during an emergency.

“Generally my overall impression is that a statewide public safety communication plan is long overdue,” said California Highway Patrol CIO Reginald Chappelle. “I’ve been dealing with telecommunications at the state level for 10 years and there has never been a concerted effort to put together a strategic plan that crosses departments or agency boundaries.”

Previous efforts focused on the needs of individual agencies, but didn't look at sharing infrastructure to meet common challenges.

“Basically what we’re looking at is as any of our radio systems need to be upgraded, enhanced or replaced, no one department will be looking at their system for their department only,” said Karen Wong, deputy director of the Public Safety Communications Division in the Office of the State Chief Information Officer (OCIO). “We will be looking at whatever the upgrade, enhancement or replacement is to include other systems that have the same needs.”

Wong said OCIO would not replace systems simply to replace systems; rather, upgrades would be driven by the agencies’ missions. For example, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation would likely continue to use an upgraded 800 MHz system within its prisons and then use the shared network for communication between institutions.

Defining the Governance Structure

The next step is for the CIO’s office to work with members of the Public Safety Radio Strategic Planning Committee (PSRSPC) and California Statewide Interoperability Executive Committee to define a governance structure within the next three years. “We will be implementing a structure that clearly delineates the roles and responsibilities, which has been difficult in the state the way we’ve been set up until Executive Order S-03-10 came out that clearly delineated the responsibility for statewide IT, which public safety communications falls within," she said. "That gives the Public Safety Communications Division under the OCIO the responsibilities.”  

She said the CIO’s office would be reaching out “a lot stronger” to the California Statewide Interoperability Executive Committee to work more closely with local entities’ regional programs — such as Los Angeles’ and the Bay Areas’ regional interoperable communications systems — as the state looks forward to a statewide system of systems. Wong said she would be meeting soon with Laura Phillips, the executive director of the Bay Area Urban Area Security Initiative, to discuss collaboration between the group and the state on radio communications.

“We’re keeping a really close eye on the National Broadband Plan and what is happening with the D Block,” she said. But OCIO has no immediate plans to apply for a waiver to build a system in the space reserved by the FCC for a national interoperable public safety broadband network. “It wouldn’t make sense just to do it," she said. "We would be replacing something that we already have.”

Planning Process

The planning process began in July 2009 and was led by the California Emergency Management Agency and OCIO. Planning was facilitated by a team of consultants from Gartner who took an unusual approach by meeting with representatives of PSRSPC agencies individually or in small groups when they shared a role. Then after the plan was compiled, members reviewed the plan in its entirety. The result is a 10-year strategic plan that lays out a roadmap toward statewide interoperable communications.

Andy McMurry, assistant deputy director for fire protection operations for the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), said the plan is an accurate depiction of the department’s needs and provides a vision that will be relevant in good and bad fiscal times. “So at the very least this plan gives us kind of the foundation to frame the discussion with policymakers,” he said.

McMurry said the department’s very high-frequency network provides sufficient interoperable communications capability for voice in the remote areas in which Cal Fire operates, while also being a platform for interoperability between state, local and federal responders.

One priority for Chappelle during the planning process was the management of the state’s radio antennas in remote locations. “A lot of the sites are just suffering from negligence because there’s no centralized oversight," he said. "You know each site is managed individually. So this plan accounts for that. I wouldn’t have bought into the plan if it hadn’t addressed that particular issue.”

Both Cal Fire and the state’s Highway Patrol are interested in collaborating on data transmission. “Right now, other than whatever terrestrial cellular network or the satellite stuff at very high pricing, we don’t have a lot of wireless data capability other than what is provided by commercial vendors," McMurry said. "And it doesn’t propagate. I mean it’s kind of hit and miss throughout the state.”

The conversion of the state’s microwave network from analog to digital is a major project that will likely benefit each agency involved in interoperability efforts. The system is about 60 percent digital and provides mainly voice communications to many state agencies, Wong said. “We would have to utilize that backbone for us to get to our system of systems as many of our departments utilize that backbone now.”

The state plans to release a revised strategic direction by December for the completion of the microwave network conversion to digital.

Collaboration and accountability will be important to the plan’s success. “It can’t just be a plan for the state CIO’s office,” Chappelle said. “It has to be a plan that all those member agencies and PSRSPC take some ownership of as well. And the CIO needs to be able to go through that plan and make sure there is an entity or an individual who's responsible for it and there’s some regular public reporting, both to PSRSPC and putting it on a website.”