IMG_20140703_171050The 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 Other problems ranged from out-of-date firmware to failing headsets, and from computers to heat buildup and random electrostatic buildup on the carpet.

The City launched an IT project in late 2013 to update the dispatch center, replace out-of-date equipment, and improve radio maintenance service.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.


Regina Harris (L), manager of dispatch center, Assistant Chief of Police Paul Figueroa (C), and Mayor Jean Quan (R).

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).

OPOA“We have had an ongoing problem with the radios spanning over a decade. The [Oakland] system has been improved, but it was near collapse 2 years ago,” Donalen said with heavy emphasis.

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.


Photo courtesy of the City of Oakland.

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.”

IMG_5710Gardener 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.”

6 Responses

  1. Len Raphael

    How did you keep from smiling when officials and OPD brass bragged about how high tech they were becoming? “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.”

    It sounds like instead of upgrading our 911 system so that cell phone 911 calls go directly to OPD dispatch along with the geographical location of the caller, the calls will simply be “forwarded” from CHP to OPD dispatch.

    And does OPD seriously expect people to remember the sequence of digits for the other 777 number?

    Ask OPD whether forwarded 911 cell phone calls will be the same as having a cell phone compatible 911 system like every other city in CA (except for one smaller one) has? I asked and did not receive an answer.

    Len Raphael

  2. R2D2II

    Sounds to me like the familiar leadership vacuum in Oakland.

    Complex decisions which are based on multiple factors require leaders who can see the big picture, balance financial requirements with acceptable performance objectives and then conceive, articulate and negotiate a deal which benefits Oakland in the long run.

    Here we’ve got no leaders, but instead city staffers and elected “policy makers” who pick an isolated aspect of a decision and vote up or down based on that alone. For example Kernighan’s take on the proportional representation issue as critical. Henry Gardener doesn’t think that’s critical.

    A real leader, which Kernighan is not, nor is there any real leader in city hall,
    would understand that Oakland as the largest stakeholder in the regional system would have a lot of clout in setting up the working relationship with the regional system including representation.

    So here we go again. Decisions always made at a distance, not based on critical thinking but always CYA and risk-averse. And invariably the worst possible decision for the long term.

    Look around you folks and just keep voting the same people back into city hall again and again.

  3. Oakie

    First, a small nit with OPD: Why do you think it is that they use 777-3333 for the non-emergency number and 777-3321 for emergencies (a far far more complex number to remember and punch in)? A cynic would say they are deliberately trying to avoid emergency calls. Call me a cynic.

    Or maybe it’s just plain old incompetence. After all, they chose as the url of the city, violating conventions for every single url rule: com for commercial, net for ISPs, and gov for government. It’s the 3 Stooges running our city!

    Reading about this $750,000 expenditure here and in SFGate and Tribune, and getting past the dog-and-pony aspect of the celebration, there are some troubling details.

    As far as I can see, all the money went to nice chairs (no mention of cup-holders, but I’m guessing so) and large flat screen TVs. Nothing was spent to upgrade the call taking or dispatching software.

    For example, the upgrade to Shot Spotter was explained as going “from a laptop in the back of the room” to a large screen in the back of the room. BFD. They could have just gone to Costco, picked up a 50″ TV for $500 and plugged it in with a little bit of cabling onto the laptop. And maybe that’s exactly what they did.

    Is that really such a big improvement? The dispatchers still don’t have direct visual use unless they decide to wrench their neck and face the back of the room, which they won’t due unless they already know about an incident.

    Furthermore, as Len points out, they didn’t make direct connection 911 like all the other jurisdictions in California. Again, as a cynic, I believe it is because they just don’t want all those demanding people calling them with their damn emergencies! In fact it was stated that because there is no increase in FTEs they wouldn’t be able to handle the extra load anyway.

    So what did we get for $750,000? Nice chairs, cupholders and a few large screen TVs.

    And how was this presented by our politicians to us? Look at how hard we’re working to improve OPD!

    And with 20 people running for mayor, not a single one pipes up and questions it.

  4. Angie Tam

    Thank you. Oakland Local for publishing this article. This esoteric subject has caused a lot of unnecessary viciousness in some neighborhood groups forums. By confusing time line of events, mis-leading conclusions were made by posters.

    I have been to the new Dispatch Center. The dispatcher deserves the new equipment. They were not excessively luxurious or grand. Without an explanation, an outsider would not understand some of the seemingly trivia changes. For example, the carpet needed to be changed because it was causing static electricity which was causing equipment problems.

    Furthermore, around 1 or 2 year ago, I watched the webcast of the public safety committee meeting in which the topic of 911 vs. 777-3211
    was discussed. If I remember correctly, it takes few million of dollars to switch to the 911 system. Even if Oakland wanted to, there isn’t enough dispatchers to handle the job at that moment ( it was still the Great Recession budget). I believe having CHP handle the initial 911 routing is without cost to Oakland. Eventually we will have to switch, but the decision made then gave Oakland time to budget for the change.

    Here’s my understanding : Whether we keep P25 or EBRCSA has NOTHING to do with public safety INSIDE Oakland. Current P25 systems works both inside and outside of Oakland for OPD. It works when Oakland calls for help outside of the city system. Difficulties arise when outside agencies request help from Oakland. So the interoperability is ONE way, without harm to Oakland residents.

    There’s also the requirement for Oakland to be interoperable with the BART system since BART spans the entire city of Oakland. Some other members of EBRCSA does not have to conform to the requirement. That’s an extra burden on Oakland if we don’t have equitable representation.

  5. TonyB

    Mr. Dyckoff’s excellent piece contained a large amount of useful information. Well-written and clear, it left me wanting much more, especially his opinion of the right move for Oakland to make on this matter.

  6. Seamus

    Great idea to integrate with the county. Oakland is a city that needs outside assistance from time to time, & a county-wide integrated communication system will help with the big emergencies. I do wish Oakland would ditch its use of nine-code and use more widely understood ten-code. NATO phonetic use would be helpful too for communication with outside…

    Of course, one way to find out about usefulness would be to ask line police officers what they think.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.