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Sunday, August 13, 2000
Orange County Edition
Section: Metro
Page: B-16

Reliable Police, Fire Radios a Must

Police and firefighters need top-notch communications equipment when they respond to emergencies, as the 1993 Laguna Beach fires graphically demonstrated. Firefighters in Laguna Beach reported difficulty in communicating with other emergency services as flames roared along the hillsides, consuming homes.

An expensive new system is on the way, but problems need to be resolved to win the confidence of law-enforcement personnel and provide an adequate level of assistance.

Orange County proposed a replacement that would allow emergency communication for firefighters and police. It was to replace the 1970s-era system, considered overburdened. But when the bankruptcy intervened in 1994, costs got cut, the new system was trimmed and difficulties are now coming to light.

Last month, county officials took the first steps toward expanding the new system, which unfortunately has disappointed the two police agencies and the fire department that have been the first to use it. One early failure was the inability of police in the Irvine and Tustin police headquarters buildings to hear dispatchers who sometimes were close by. That is one reason the county put any expansion of the system on hold earlier this year. But officials later gave the go-ahead for an expansion, as long as technical reports show improvements in solving the problems.

The Motorola company, which is building the emergency radio system, has received high marks for responding to these complaints and others from the county fire department. The company has acknowledged "glitches" in the way the equipment has worked so far and promises they will be ironed out. But company officials also noted that the final capabilities will not be what was envisioned originally.

Because this system is budgeted at $80 million, it had better be good. If it is not, it's time to find a new one.

Before it is installed, it will need to satisfy the men and women in the departments who will depend on it when chasing down suspects and rescuing trapped motorists. Firefighters who tried the radios said they were forced to stand by windows to find an adequate signal. A Motorola official said the system may not work in some clusters of buildings.

The original proposal would have guaranteed that radios worked in buildings that absorbed up to 20 decibels of signal strength. After the bankruptcy, the final contract stipulated that the threshold would be 15 decibels. It may be that the radios will not work in every single building, but coverage should be as broad as possible. And the public-safety personnel will have to be told just where the system will not work, so that neither their lives nor those of the people they aid will be jeopardized.

Somehow, the county will need to show police and firefighters that the new system is better than the old one and will function in an emergency.

Type of Material: Editorial