Emergency Radio Project in California Delayed Three Years

Marin County, Calif., has been working since 2017 to set up a new emergency radio system to replace one so old that new parts need to be bought on eBay. It was supposed to go online this year, but now it's delayed.

by Matthew Pera, The Marin Independent Journal / March 26, 2019
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(TNS) — The planned $40 million overhaul of Marin County, Calif.’s outdated emergency radio system, which is set to close coverage gaps for firefighters in some of the county’s wildlands, is at least three years behind schedule, officials said.

Rollout of the new system was initially scheduled for this year. But several setbacks have pushed the project’s completion to 2022 at the soonest, said Richard Pearce, board president for the Marin Emergency Radio Authority and chief of the Tiburon Fire Protection District.

“We were very ambitious with our timeline,” Pearce said. “But these delays have really caused us some issues.”

The first setback came when a radio frequency oversight committee raised concerns about the project design. The committee, a regional adviser to the Federal Communications Commission, said some planned antennas could interfere with radio signals in other nearby jurisdictions.

Designers were forced to modify the project to address those concerns, which pushed the timeline back several months for the Marin Emergency Radio Authority, commonly known as MERA.

Initial plans called for 12 antenna sites, five of which would be new. The latest iteration of the design includes 10 existing sites and eight new ones. Five existing sites will be decommissioned.

View the plans on Scribd.

The radio authority hit another roadblock when a review of its contract with Motorola Solutions revealed several omissions. The contract was signed in 2017 with approval from the county Board of Supervisors. Motorola’s design was the only one submitted when a request for proposals was sent out.

The signed contract included a cost for hundreds of new radios that will be used by emergency personnel. But the agreement made no mention of chargers for those radios.

“That was in dispute and had to be resolved by a change order,” said Maureen Cassingham, the authority’s executive officer.

The contract also assumed the radio authority would get the antenna sites ready for installation, pushing that work off Motorola’s plate. But that was a discrepancy for the authority, among several others.

“I wouldn’t call these misunderstandings, but disputes,” Cassingham said. “We made a series of change orders to the contract that has required additional time to resolve these issues.”

Changes to the Motorola contract increased the initial $34.3 million cost by about $5.3 million. The authority has also opted for an extended, 15-year warranty policy on the system, which will cost an additional $9 million. But the project is still within its budget, according to Pearce.

The system will be paid for with money generated by a 20-year parcel tax that Marin voters approved in 2014. The tax, which costs about $29 per household annually, is expected to generate more than $60 million in revenue.

With the contract and a revised plan for antenna sites hammered out, the authority expects to release an environmental impact report for public comment next month, according to Cassingham.

Preparing the report, which was originally scheduled for release last year, took longer than anticipated, Cassingham said.

“This is a very extensive and very thorough (environmental impact report) that has to consider not just the reuse of existing sites but the new sites too,” she said. “It’s not your average report, where you go in and look at a very site-specific project.”

Comments on the report will be accepted for 45 days following its release. The authority will then review any concerns raised and attempt to resolve them. Potential concerns could include impacts on plant and animal species surrounding antenna sites, aesthetics, health concerns related to radio frequencies and impacts on cultural sites.

Second Time Around

The radio authority was formed in 1998 to plan, finance, manage, own and operate the county’s emergency radio system. It is governed by a 25-member board of directors appointed by stakeholder agencies throughout the county. The same year it was formed, the authority signed a contract with Motorola to design and build its current radio system. The project was met with numerous lawsuits, which for years tied it up in legal battles.

The authority installed its first radios connected to the new system at the San Rafael Police Department in January 2004, but at the time was still working through legal challenges to build some proposed antenna sites.

A state appeals court in August 2004 overturned a Marin Superior Court decision that granted Tiburon a stop-work order to halt construction of an antenna site on Mt. Tiburon. The Tiburon court case had been among the authority’s greatest legal challenges.

Cassingham hopes what the radio authority calls its “next generation” system revamp won’t meet the same resistance.

“I don’t think this will happen the second time around,” she said. “But I think it’s possible that someone could pose a challenge to the (impact report).”

Officials hope the overhaul will be a long-lasting upgrade to an antiquated system. With the advent of new technologies, manufacturers are no longer making parts compatible with Marin’s system, so fixing broken hardware in recent years has been a challenge. The radio authority has solicited parts from other jurisdictions that have upgraded their systems and sold off old equipment. Some have been purchased through eBay.

“It’s like limping your cellphone along for that little extra period of time before you get a new one,” said Jason Weber, chief of the Marin County Fire Department.

The new system, which will be controlled by software Cassingham describes as light years ahead of what the authority is currently using, is expected to address some inefficiencies that have been a challenge for emergency crews.

The current system has a capacity limit for users and, in extreme circumstances, gets overloaded with radio traffic. Officials have installed a backup system to combat the issue, but the new technology should eradicate the problem.

Though it won’t be perfect, officials say the “next generation” radio will expand coverage for firefighters working in some of Marin’s most heavily forested areas.

With the threat of wildfire in Marin growing increasingly worrisome for many residents in the wake of several deadly and destructive blazes tearing through nearby communities, fire officials are eager to get the new system in place. But Weber isn’t sweating the delay.

“Instead of rushing us into something that might not meet our needs over the long term, we’re taking the time to do it wisely and get it right,” he said.

©2019 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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