$5.6 Million in Homeland Security Funds Split California Interests

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.

But the push toward regional interoperability shed new light on another aspect of radio communications in Oakland: The city's equipment is largely incompatible with what's used in the rest of Alameda County and much of Contra Costa County. That means upgrading Oakland's current equipment may not bring the city any closer to joining a two-county system in five years.

But completely converting Oakland to the Motorola system Alameda County uses could cost nearly three times as much as updating the city's current system.

"To get the same capabilities and coverage we would get for $11 million by upgrading our current system would cost, according to preliminary estimates, between $27 million and $30 million if we did a complete conversion," Glaze said.

Hopes of a "win-win" emerged last year when Maycom assured Oakland officials that the way it would upgrade the city's equipment would allow the city's system to hook up with the regional system now contemplated for Alameda and Contra Costa counties.

Glaze said Maycom has even given the city a money-back guarantee that such a link will be possible.

But early this year, communications experts from the federal Department of Homeland Security urged Oakland to hold off on the purchase because Maycom does not have the technology yet to make such a link possible.

"We cannot recommend a product based on a promise," said John Powell, statewide manager for Homeland Security's Interoperable Communications Technical Assistance Program.

Glaze said Oakland has asked Maycom to come back with field tests that prove it will live up to its promises.

While the clock ticks toward another major incident, and responders in Oakland continue to struggle with outdated equipment, the debate over a regional radio system also is rubbing some Contra Costa officials the wrong way.

Though money from the federal "Urban Area Strategic Initiative" is allocated expressly to serve regional interests, this area's grants are assigned to Oakland because it has been designated the "core city" of the two-county region.

That has spawned more than a few claims that Oakland holds too much power. The unease is punctuated by another fact: The seven-person executive committee calling the shots over East Bay UASI grants consists of four officials from Oakland, two from Alameda County and only one from Contra Costa County.

"The result is that Oakland, with roughly 25 percent of the area's population, essentially controls all UASI funds," Contra Costa Sheriff Warren Rupf said in a letter last month to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

"The decision-making structure for the area was established in a manner that disenfranchises 75 percent of the population."

Rupf says Oakland, Alameda County and Contra Costa County each should have "equal representation and signatory powers" on the two-county committee. If they can't, he said, Contra Costa should be its own UASI area.

The decision to spend $5.6 million on microwave infrastructure only heightened suspicions north of the Caldecott Tunnel because Contra Costa already has such equipment, which it financed all on its own.

Overacker, the Contra Costa communications director, said he thinks agencies across the East Bay eventually will be able to look beyond their differences toward the needs of the region. The challenge is to recognize that the upgrades contemplated in Oakland and Alameda County are a "necessary first step" toward a regional system that will benefit Contra Costa as well, he said.

Contra Costa officials are justified in demanding that significant portions of the nearly $5.7 million expected to come in the next round of UASI grants will be earmarked for their county, Overacker said.

"We have some pressing needs we would like to address out here, too," he said.