Funds Sought to Help L.A. County First Responders

Worried that first responders cannot connect with one another during a major disaster, local officials pushed federal lawmakers and the White House this week to fund upgrades to the patchwork of emergency communications systems across Los Angeles County.

Sheriff Lee Baca and L.A. County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman lobbied for a $100-million slice of a $1-billion federal public safety communications grant, arguing that the county’s vast area, huge population, natural disasters and high-level terrorist targets require sophisticated emergency tools.

Roughly 100 law enforcement agencies and fire departments work across Los Angeles County but often use separate, incompatible or obsolete frequencies and equipment to share information.

“Being the largest county in America, having to deal with flood, fire, earthquake, riots and things over the years, [emergency communications have] been the weak point,” said Supervisor Don Knabe, a member of the State and Local Officials Senior Advisory Committee of the President’s Homeland Security Advisory Council.

Local leaders stress that in such catastrophes as the 2005 Metrolink commuter train crash or the 1994 Northridge earthquake, emergency personnel were not able to coordinate their efforts as quickly as they might have with shared technology.

Even during fast-moving brush fires, officers evacuating residents while firefighters battle flames must swap information in person at a command post, said Freeman.

“In a critical situation it could really mean the difference between life and death,” Freeman said.

Over the last two years, public safety agencies across the area have united to develop a regional voice and data transmission system, said county Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen.

Municipal governments around the county already have committed more than $200 million to the five-year, $600-million technological overhaul, Knabe said. Agencies, including airport police and the Los Angeles Unified School District, have agreed upon a radio platform and a shared frequency, Janssen said.

“To have this kind of collaboration taking place regionwide is” remarkable, Janssen said.

Local safety officials want $100 million this year to design the regional system, which would be governed by a new joint powers authority, Freeman said. County officials are urging federal lawmakers to divvy up funds based on an area’s risk and need, Freeman said.

Federal officials are planning to release guidelines for the competitive grant application process in the next few months, said Russ Knocke, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. The money is to be distributed around September.

“On 9/11 we learned just how devastating it can be for first responders to lack interoperable communications, and that is a very hard, tough lesson,” Knocke said. “It’s one that as a nation we should not repeat.”

The department has spent about $3 billion on state and local emergency communications grants since 2003, Knocke said.

Baca described the reception this week on Capitol Hill, as well as in a meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, as supportive.

California Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein expressed enthusiasm for the project. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) suggested that garnering support for the plan from Democratic heavyweights such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would help get federal dollars.

“Interoperability has been, since 9/11, one of my highest priorities,” Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) told county supervisors in a meeting this week.

An integrated regional communication system could affect as many as 30,000 emergency responders, Baca said.

Los Angeles public safety agencies “make decisions in a collaborative manner, but we don’t have a collaborative communications system,” Baca said.

Source: Susannah Rosenblatt, Los Angeles Times, April 28, 2007

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