CA: Emergency Radio Upgrade Halted for Bugs : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Saturday, June 24, 2000

O.C. Emergency Radio Upgrade Halted for Bugs

By JACK LEONARD, Times Staff Writer

Orange County officials have halted expansion of a new $80-million emergency radio system after a series of failures, including one case involving a tense SWAT situation that officers say endangered their lives.

The much-touted radio system was designed to enhance communication between police and other emergency agencies. But police in Irvine, the first city to use it, say the system is riddled with problems that must be fixed before it's expanded to other cities. Tustin is the only other city to go online so far. Technicians from Motorola, which is constructing the network, have spent weeks trying to resolve the complaints, but Irvine police say the problems are far from over. "We're tired of being the guinea pigs," Irvine Police Sgt. Dave Mihalik said.

Irvine officers told a county committee overseeing the project that the new radios sometimes fail to pick up calls from dispatchers, produce delayed and garbled messages, drain batteries of motorcycles and cannot penetrate major buildings, such as areas of the Irvine Spectrum complex and underground parking lots. The failures, they said, have led to some tense moments: * In one case, a motorcycle officer trying to escape an angry crowd after a concert at Irvine Meadows was unable to start his vehicle because the radio had drained his battery. * A garbled communication from an officer responding to a brawl at the Irvine Spectrum prevented colleagues from finding her to help. Officers spent a panicked few minutes running through the complex in a desperate attempt to find her until she eventually was able to broadcast again over the radio, police said. * Earlier this month, officers say, the system delayed communications during crucial moments in the search of an Irvine warehouse for two carjacking suspects. As a result, officers with guns drawn didn't get a message saying that SWAT officers inside were coming out until after they had emerged. * In addition, county officials said some wireless phone transmitters are interfering with radio signals from the new emergency network, preventing communication within 100 yards of a transmitter. County officials said there are hundreds of such wireless phone transmitters throughout the county. The new 800-megahertz system was designed in the wake of the devastating 1993 Laguna Beach fires, when fire departments were unable to effectively communicate as they fought the blaze. But in a controversy that so far is unique to the steep-sloped beach city, residents demanded that towers for the new system be lowered for aesthetic reasons. Motorola now says it cannot guarantee that the radios will work inside some buildings within the city, because lower towers will increase the chance of blocked signals.

A Freeze Imposed and Rush Solutions Members of the county oversight committee fear that the problems in Irvine and Tustin will spread to other agencies unless they are solved now. "We're simply not going to authorize moving forward with those cities until we . . . rectify the problems that we're having," said Allan L. Roeder, chairman of the committee overseeing the radio network and city manager of Costa Mesa.

Motorola has flown out a team of technicians from Chicago and Florida in an effort to fix the system. New radios for motorcycles are being sent out to replace the ones currently being used unsuccessfully in Irvine and Tustin. Meanwhile, company engineers are also trying to recreate the problems with missed calls, garbled messages and other concerns but have met limited success, said company spokeswoman Pat Sturmon. Motorola officials plan to meet next week with county officials to draw up a timetable for fixing the difficulties. But company officials were hesitant to say how long they think the delay will last. "Motorola wants the officers and the county to have confidence in the radio system," Sturmon said. "We'd like to say that we think that it's going to proceed very quickly because we do feel that a lot of the issues are resolvable."

Officials once estimated that the county sheriff's and police departments would be using the system by the start of next year. But difficulties in constructing sites to install equipment and other problems will delay completion until at least fall 2001, Sturmon said. Sturmon said the company, at its own expense, has altered some of the designs to increase coverage at the Irvine Spectrum. She acknowledged that coverage could be improved further, but at more cost. Sturmon stressed that the problems are not the result of fundamental flaws in the company's technology. Once the system is up and running, she said, the new digital technology will enable agencies throughout the county to communicate with each other as never before. "You're going to have glitches . . . but the system itself is extremely sound," she said. "It's the fine tuning, while frustrating, that is what will give the officers what they need."

Roeder agreed but said he was troubled by the inconsistency of the system's performance in the last three months and how long it might take to fix. "I do not believe that there is anything fatally flawed with the system," he said. "What concerns me is how long it will take Motorola to accomplish [solutions] and what the risk assessment is to officers and the public in Irvine and Tustin during that period." Officers in Irvine have become so frustrated with the system that some use their wireless phones to communicate with dispatchers instead of their new radios, said Sgt. Mihalik, who is president of the Irvine Police Officers Assn.

"They're unhappy with it, to the point where they get angry . . . because they feel that it's unsafe," Mihalik said. "It's disappointing. To me, the system we had was better than the system we're currently using."

-- Martin Thompson (, June 24, 2000

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