Emergency services dispatcher

An unidentified dispatcher monitors emergency communications from the Santa Barbara County Public Safety Dispatch Center, which will receive new equipment and a backup location under the county''s plan to improve the system.

A nearly $87,000 contract to develop specifications for a new emergency services radio system and manage a request for proposals to provide it was unanimously approved Tuesday by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.

But the question of how to pay for the estimated $48.7 million cost of the new system was left unanswered, although supervisors can expect to hear about potential options during budget workshops.

Meeting in Santa Barbara, the board approved a professional services agreement with Federal Engineering Inc. to write the specifications for the new public safety radio system and manage the request for proposals from vendors to supply the equipment.

Federal Engineering is the same company the county hired for the first two phases of the process — assessing the existing emergency radio system and providing recommendations for replacement systems.

Developing the technical design of the system and calling for proposals represent the third and fourth phases, followed by coming up with a way to pay for it all.

The fifth phase would be acquiring and implementing the system at a total cost of $48.7 million, which includes about $17.7 million for the “backbone” system to carry signals between the communication center and base stations, almost $2.9 million for two Dispatch Centers and nearly $28.2 million for the mobile radios.

Tom Gresham, assistant director of the General Services Department, said the county is currently operating with several land mobile radio systems using various technologies with different capabilities that are at the end of their useful life.

He noted some of the systems were installed in 1994 and are no longer supported by their manufacturers.

In addition, they lack redundant connections to the Dispatch Center, which also does not have a backup location.

“If the Dispatch Center suffered an operational degradation, dispatchers would be unable to communicate (with field units),” Gresham said.

So the plan is to upgrade not only the mobile radio system but also the microwave relay systems to provide better voice communications with more reliability over a greater coverage area for as long as 20 years.

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With the existing system, which Gresham described as a “star” design, for example if the Harris Grade tower went down, the Solomon tower communications would be essentially cut off.

The new system with a design of “multiple circles” would allow an interconnectivity, so if one link failed, there would be an alternate path of communication.

Gresham said the county will, for the most part, ditch the old UHF analog system and step up to a digital system known as P25 that will allow transferring data as well as voice communications.

The P25 system will give the county the ability to communicate with other agencies that are also using the system, including San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties, which would improve coordination of efforts in such major disasters as the 2017 Thomas fire and 2018 debris flow in Montecito.

Gresham said the exception would be that the County Fire Department would use upgraded VHF radios because of the need to communicate with partner agencies, like Cal Fire, which have not upgraded their systems.

Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann asked if essentially the county would be upgrading the Fire Department to an archaic system that would require an additional expense to upgrade in the future.

Gresham said that was the case, but he noted in the meantime the department would have the technological capability of communicating with the county’s digital system.

“It might be 20 years before the state upgrades,” General Services Department Director Janette Pell noted.

When Hartmann asked what the funding approaches would be, Pell said she planned to bring those options back as a budget item.

“We all know it needs to be done,” said Board Chairman and 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino. “It’s just (a question of) how we get the money to pay for it.”

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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.