The City of Oakland is has been quietly working on its radio communications issues by updating its old equipment and renovating its dispatch center. On Tuesday, July 8, the finance committee of the City Council will also be voting on a contract to replace all of its aging hand-held radios.
But a looming issue that has far reaching consequences is whether Oakland should join Alameda and Contra Costa Counties and a group of East Bay cities that purchase radio equipment together, or if instead, Oakland has the independence to create new solutions with its links to BART and other systems such as San Francisco’s. The answer to that could wind up costing the City millions in new fees and for new radio equipment (beyond what it is budgeted for new hand-held radios), and also impact public safety.
Newly-Updated 911 Center
Last week, news and media organizations were invited to tour the renovated 911 Dispatch Center. The Dispatch Center has been near the end of Edgewater Drive, not far from the Oakland Walmart, for about a decade. Until late last year, very little new equipment had been purchased and much of the maintenance budget had been slashed during the Great Recession.
Problems with communications between police in the field and the Dispatch Center came to a head during President Obama’s visit to Oakland in 2012, when communications with some field units failed repeatedly. Those problems were investigated by a task force led by radio manufacturer Harris and later confirmed by RCC, a radio communications consulting company, which found and itemized several layers of problems.
Included in the task force list were radio interference from the towers of some cell phone carriers, which led to the carriers shifting or ‘re-banding’ some of their cell phone communications. Other problems ranged from out-of-date firmware to failing headsets, and from computers to heat buildup and random electrostatic buildup on the carpet.
The City launched an IT project in late 2013 to update the dispatch center, replace out-of-date equipment, and improve radio maintenance service. It was a $750,000 project that included state-of-the-art ergonomic equipment and new multi-screen dispatcher workstations. The City was also happy to report the project completed slightly early and possibly under the budgeted figure.
Over 60 people work at the 24-hour facility and the City is budgeting for 10 more positions to handle increased cell phone traffic when the Highway Patrol will redirect its 911 cell calls to the Oakland Dispatch Center. Staffing has been as high as 99 dispatchers in the last decade. The City is also planning to advertise the use of 777-3333 for non-emergency calls instead of 911 to reduce the call volume and call waiting times. Much more needs to be done, however, and the City Council Finance Committee meeting on Tuesday morning will be discussing next steps.
Assistant Chief of Police Paul Figueroa spoke at the press conference and noted the OPD was committed to making further investments in technology at the Dispatch Center. “Public safety is our first priority and this is really a key entry point into the public safety system when individuals call for help,” Figueroa explained. “It’s really important that we have the latest technology and the ability to give the dispatcher… the information that they need to not only help our community members, but also the officers in the field. This upgrade really does that.”
Mayor Jean Quan mentioned the ongoing need to upgrade the field equipment used by OPD officers, including new patrol cars and new laptops. She said the upgrades to the 911 Dispatcher Center are part of this effort. “Our communications center is one of the things we wanted to work on. …We’re pretty proud to create a state-of-the-art workspace for dispatchers who are at the heart of dramatic and important safety situations every day.”
“This center with its new equipment is more efficient and provides much more information …on multiple screens,” Quan said, “giving them the information to help police officers, from Shot-Spotter to mapping …to let the officers know what’s happening on the scene.”
Radios and EBRCSA
This reporter has been on OPD ride-alongs and also spoken with newly-graduated police officers, and all have reported no significant problems with police car radios. The President of the Oakland Police Officers Association (OPOA), Barry Donalen, agreed with that assessment in a recent phone interview. However, Donalen and various City officials all agree that current handheld radios used by police and fire personnel are out of date and continue to have problems.
The solution is to purchase new handheld radios, which no one disagrees with. But for the OPOA, and some members of the City Council, the radio purchase opens the door to discuss the thornier issue of whether Oakland, like San Francisco, should maintain its own radio system or if it should join the East Bay Regional Communications System Authority (EBRCSA).
Donalen praised the dispatch center operators. “…They’re great people,” he said, that had to work in difficult circumstances. However, Donalen was not fully aware of the improvements made at the dispatch center or to the network in general. Donalen did agree that the radios in police cars, which have mostly been replaced, are functional and reliable. “The most critical thing are the handhelds, and they are all worthless,” Donalen said. Donalen also advocated moving to EBRCSA.
According to Donalen, the OPOA would welcome a system that was reliable and inter-operable with all the regional communications and emergency services: “I don’t care what name is on it, I don’t care who runs it, I just want the system to work.”
The sheriffs in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties received a lot of federal dollars to enhance law enforcement operations by building a common radio system for both counties. The nucleus of EBRCSA started operations in Contra Costa County in 2007 and gradually grew to include most small cities in the East Bay. EBRCSA was still very new during Obama’s 2012 visit and it seemed far ahead of Oakland’s radio system at the time, but Oakland’s radio system has been substantially improved since then.
Between 2007 and 2010, Oakland considered joining EBRCSA, but the two-county system had not been deployed in the Oakland area. Even at the time of Obama’s visit, EBRCSA did not have its northwest cell deployed. That did not happen until almost the end of 2013. Now coverage extends from Berkeley to San Leandro. So Oakland claims it had to make improvements to its own radio system after 2010, and its P25 radio network went live in 2011. An update to the Dispatch Center waited until this year.
In the report prepared for the City by RCC Consultants, several performance tests were conducted in areas around Oakland, including areas where there had been cell tower interference. The results showed that the interference problem had been resolved. RCC also compared Oakland’s radio system with the EBRCS network and found that Oakland’s system was slightly better in most areas and had fewer weak or dead reception zones. These performance tests, however, were done with modern radio receivers. RCC recommends all Oakland’s portable radios be replaced with new models to resolve the remaining communications problems.
According to the proposal before the Finance Committee, signing on to EBRCSA would require both a $200 initial access fee and $35 a month for each of Oakland’s 2,900 radios. That would require about $1.8 million the first year and $1,218,000 each following year. Separately, the Finance Committee is also considering two bids to replace the existing portable radios with a contract not to exceed $7,950,600.
Oakland has two choices for providers of portable radios: The Harris Corporation, which provides most of Oakland’s current equipment, and the Motorola Corporation, which provides most of the equipment for the EBRCSA. Both of the selected models work with Oakland’s P25 network, but only the Motorola model would work with EBRCSA.
Although there are 23 people on the EBRCSA board, the day-to-day operations are run by one person from a solitary office in the Alameda County Emergency Response Center. That would be Executive Director Bill McCammon, a former Alameda County Fire Chief. McCammon did not reply to Oakland Local inquiries until just before publication.
McCammon has a different take on the history of EBRCSA and Oakland’s negotiations. He told Oakland Local that the communications cell needed for Oakland’s participation in EBRCSA could have been prioritized had Oakland joined earlier.
EBRCSA currently uses tech support staff from the Alameda County and Contra Costa County governments and processes its billing and payments through the Alameda County Auditor’s Office. According to McCammon, EBRCSA pays both counties for these services as if they were contractors.
“Our P25 network and the EBRCSA both work fine,” City Council President Pat Kernighan told Oakland Local. “Our problem had been with the portable radios themselves. They are really old and they were poorly maintained. The good news is that the portable radios will be replaced”
Kernighan said she understood why many police officers had lost confidence in the radios. “The RCC report makes clear that it’s not our network that causes the remaining problems. Both networks are fine … but the problem with joining EBRCSA is that Oakland will not have proportional representation on a board that decides on financial obligations that Oakland will face in the future… At this point, the staff recommendation to stick with our own system makes the most sense.”
Our City Manager Has Been on Both Sides
The new City Manager, Henry Gardener, spoke with Oakland Local at the beginning of July. He said he did have experience with Joint Powers Agreements (JPAs) between Oakland and other government entities and he counseled careful and deliberate reviews before committing to any new ones.
Gardener actually has some history with the formation of EBRCSA. “I was asked in my role as executive director of ABAG, and because of my former role as City Manager of Oakland, to talk to Oakland about joining, because they [EBRCSA] were just in the formation stages. I had a conversation with the Fire Chief of Oakland then, and I was told there were several reasons why Oakland was not prepared to join. This was a good 7 years ago. The situation has now come up again since we are buying these radios. Should we be joining EBRCSA? Our staff recommendation is ‘no’ and that is based on several issues.”
Gardener listed the first 2 issues as requiring “comparable costs” plus the “issue of inter-operability” during emergencies. He felt that there were few benefits to justify the higher costs of moving to EBRCSA. But Gardener was far more sanguine about the 3rd issue: governance. “The question would be about a JPA where a vote that could result in substantial cost to the City. I’d generally recommend against that.” Gardener said he would want Oakland to be able to vote on these and other issues at a level proportionate to its size and financial responsibilities with EBRCSA.
EBRCSA has suggested unofficially that it may be able to make a single seat available sometime after Oakland joined, but there has been no suggestion of more seats for Oakland, even though it would be the largest single government in EBRCSA, should it join. While not every city in the EBRCSA netork has a seat on the governing board, Livermore and Danville currently each have 2 representatives because some representatives are chosen by the Mayor’s Associations in each county. “There’s no way we’d join with only one seat, that would be an absolute non-starter,” Gardener said.
Gardener also talked about the history. “When Oakland was originally asked to join 7 years ago, it said it had already invested into the current system and it would have no way to retrieve that cost. And as I recall, it was a huge stumbling block then.” Gardener added, “If the Council were to follow the staff recommendation, there would be nothing to preclude the City from joining EBRCSA at a later date.”