Last fall, when a suspect blockaded himself inside a suburban Sacramento, Calif., shopping mall and set one wing of the structure on fire, local authorities and firefighters from around the region staged outside. It was the first opportunity to test a trailer designed to unify the different radio bands used by responding agencies.

The trailer, called Communications-on-Wheels (COW), patches together radio systems of different frequencies. A regional radio network is operating two of the portable rigs.

The Sacramento Regional Radio Communications System (SRRCS), a network of more than 14,000 radios that facilitates first-responder communications, at times must coordinate with other public safety agencies during natural disasters, environmental events, protests or search and rescue missions. The SRRCS includes various agencies within Sacramento and surrounding cities like Citrus Heights, Elk Grove and Folsom.

Since agencies outside the SRRCS don’t communicate on the same radio band, communication becomes difficult in an emergency. First responders are forced to carry multiple radios to communicate across jurisdictions and agencies.

But where a trailer is deployed, the system’s secondary users — along with the FBI and U.S. Marshals — now will be able to tune into the same radio band.

“It’s like having television channels broadcast on different frequencies, and if you’re listening in on Channel 3, you don’t know what’s going on Channel 10,” said Chuck Parker, Sacramento County’s Radio and Electronics Division chief. “They’re on different frequencies, so this allows us to have someone who is communicating on Channel 3 now see what’s going on with Channel 10.”

For example, Sacramento County talks on an 800 MHz system, but Roseville — a suburb 25 minutes northeast — runs a separate 800 MHz system. Placer County, which encompasses Roseville’s city limits, runs a VHF system. The trailer can patch the VHF radio system into the 800 MHz system.

“We have the ability to patch together any type of radio system in the region to the regional radio system that’s used in Sacramento as well as other types of radio systems that are available,” said Mike Newburn, Sacramento County telecommunications system manager for the SRRCS.

The radio system’s hardware comprises radio repeaters —  radio receivers that transmit and amplify low-level signals — from a variety of manufacturers, said Joe Shelton, founder and CEO of White Cloud Communications, the company that outfitted the radio equipment in the trailers. All of the equipment is hooked together with a radio gateway — the piece that makes the system interoperable.

Each trailer is fitted with a 30-foot tower and generator. Although each trailer came with a $245,000 price tag, 25 percent was paid for by the network’s existing funds and the remaining 75 percent by a Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) federal grant.

Parker said the trailers routinely are used with the National Guard for training exercises. The SRRCS hasn’t officially used the trailers during an emergency incident. However, one trailer was sent out on a trial run during the aforementioned fire at Roseville’s Westfield Galleria mall in October.

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.