$5.6 Million in Homeland Security Funds Split California Interests

A two-county committee that administers federal grant funds for the East Bay region is feeling the strain of partners clamoring to make sure their individual needs are met.

At first blush, a vote to allocate $5.6 million for an emergency radio system to link Alameda and Contra Costa counties signaled unprecedented regional cooperation driven by homeland security concerns.

But beneath the sunny veneer of the Feb. 9 vote by a two-county committee that administers federal grant funds for the East Bay is a fragile alliance that continues to feel the strain of partners clamoring to make sure their individual needs are met.

Chinks in the regional armor include calls by one top Contra Costa official for an overhaul of the two-county committee, based on the belief that its current structure could "disenfranchise" people outside Oakland.

Worries that influence over the money wanes the farther one travels from downtown Oakland were only deepened by the recent vote, because the $5.6 million would cover communications upgrades only within Alameda County.

Meanwhile, Oakland officials acknowledge a nagging concern that the city's pressing communications needs could be at odds with the long-term goal of establishing a regional radio system.

The spending plan at issue -- which still must be ratified by a multitude of cities and special districts across the East Bay -- addresses persistent glitches that plague police, fire and other emergency services providers in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

Many neighboring agencies are unable talk to each other on the radio because their equipment is incompatible. The problem amounts to a nuisance in daily situations but could have a dire effect during a natural disaster or terrorist attack.

Such problems emerged in unsettling ways during the 1991 Oakland hills firestorm, when emergency crews from across the East Bay converged and found they couldn't communicate well with incident commanders.

The push toward "interoperability" gained new emphasis nationwide after Sept. 11, 2001, when more than 100 firefighters are thought to have died in the World Trade Center because incompatible radios left them unable to hear police evacuation orders.

Among the "homeland security" initiatives spawned by the attacks on New York and Washington are grant programs that place a premium on seamless interagency communication across regions such as the East Bay.

East Bay officials trying to capitalize on that push say they took a significant step Feb. 9, when the "Urban Area Strategic Initiative" committee agreed to spend 72 percent of a $7.8 million Homeland Security grant for this region on microwave transmission equipment to form a foundation for a regional radio system. Officials involved in the effort say building a regional system will likely take at least five years and cost $50 million to $100 million, meaning funds allocated from the 2004 grant would at best amount to a down payment.

"It's an important first step that gives us all something to work toward," said Bob Glaze, Oakland's communications director.

The Feb. 9 vote provided a ray of hope that regional concerns can trump the needs of individual stakeholders.

"There are promising signs that the parties involved are willing to give up a little in the short term to reach the long-term goal of a regional system," said Steve Overacker, communications manager for Contra Costa.

But the immediate needs of individual agencies continue to dog the debate.

Police and firefighters in Oakland, for instance, struggle daily with some of the most outdated radio equipment in the region -- and with the frustrations that come with deferred technology upgrades.

The city's analog emergency radio system, manufactured by Maycom, is nearly 13 years old, which makes it a dinosaur in a field that has seen rapid technological changes.

Oakland has been working for nearly three years on a plan to overhaul its system, and officials were poised last year to invest $11 million on upgrades that would minimize equipment breakdowns and keep emergency radios from falling eerily silent in remote areas.

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