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Emergency radio communcations cost breakdown

A chart shows how much various users will contribute to cover the cost of replacing Santa Barbara County's emergency radio communications system that has an estimated cost of nearly $45.4 million.

Santa Barbara County is moving forward on replacing an antiquated, patchwork system of emergency radio communications with a project estimated to cost nearly $45.4 million but expected to serve agencies’ needs for up to 20 years.

The Board of Supervisors recently authorized the staff to send out a request for proposals from vendors who can provide equipment that will not only allow various agencies to talk to each other but also to transfer data.

Currently, the county is operating three different systems — VHF for the Fire Department, UHF for the Sheriff’s Office and an 800 MW system for the Public Works Department — that use equipment of various ages and capabilities, said Tom Gresham, assistant director of the General Services Department.

The system not only lacks redundancy but also has no backup dispatch center.

“We’re hoping to build in resiliency,” Gresham told supervisors at their Nov. 19 meeting, noting the goals include increasing efficiency and reducing operating costs. “We want to provide robust communications for the next 10 to 20 years.”

Although the goal is to eliminate multiple systems and improve efficiency, the county will still have to operate both UHF and VHF systems.

Gresham said the County Fire Department will still have to operate a VHF system so it can communicate with partner agencies — particularly Cal Fire, which is committed to using that frequency range.

Analog UHF radios will be replaced by a digital radio system that will allow the transfer of data in addition to voice communications.

Upgrading the existing mobile land radio and microwave radio systems will increase coverage and range as well as improve reliability, according to a staff report.

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According to the projected timeline, it will take three years to get the system replaced and in full operation.

Responses to the request for proposals will be due in April, and staff expects to select a vendor in July.

The selection and development of sites will finish out the first year, with the second year spent installing equipment, which would go operational in the third year following training on its use.

In addition to the initial $45.4 million cost, staff estimates that using a 15-year lifespan, it will cost $32.6 million to operate.

That will put the total cost of the system at about $77.9 million.

“When are we going to figure out how to pay for it?” asked Board Chairman and 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino.

Just how the county will pay for everything has yet to be determined.

But it will depend, in part, on how much the bids are and how much it costs to acquire the additional sites needed. How much each agency will contribute to the cost will depend on the number of radios required for each department.

Budget Director Jeff Frapwell said it will be important to see the proposals and what financing the vendors offer, but the staff will iron all that out for the board when the system is brought back for approval.

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County Reporter/Associate Editor

Lee Central Coast Newspapers associate editor Mike Hodgson covers Santa Barbara County government and events and issues in Santa Ynez Valley. Follow him on Twitter @MHodgsonSYVNews.