L.A. County officials submit scaled-down emergency communications plan

L.A. County officials submit scaled-down emergency communications plan
A data tower at the Los Angeles County Fire Department's Station 87 in La Puente, constructed for the Los Angeles Regional Interoperational Communications System. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Scrambling to salvage an ambitious emergency communications project, public safety officials in Los Angeles County on Monday submitted a scaled-down plan that greatly reduces the number of controversial data towers and avoids using them at any county fire stations.

The changes would also reduce the system's range.


The revised plan calls for just 46 towers, down from the 177 originally envisioned and substantially fewer than the 155 officials said they needed to ensure coverage throughout the county's 4,060 square miles. The towers are a key part of the project, conceived in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and paid for in large part by a federal grant. The system would allow first responders to communicate with one another in a major earthquake or other disaster.

Patrick Mallon, executive director of the authority overseeing the Los Angeles Regional Interoperational Communications System, known as LA-RICS, told a meeting of supervisors' aides and county officials that the plan also calls for 15 portable cell towers that could be deployed on state-owned sites where needed and for two satellite installations to work in conjunction with the towers.

Officials also want to use two sites for additional towers — a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power property in Sylmar and the Los Angeles Port Police station at the Port of L.A.

Mallon said the system would be "functional," although it would not provide dedicated communications coverage in some regions of the county and in a big chunk of the city of Los Angeles, including much of the San Fernando Valley and areas along the 110 Freeway. He said he and his staff are talking with the Los Angeles Police Protective League in hopes of overcoming objections to placing some towers at police stations to improve the system in the future.

When officials proposed the emergency network a few years ago, they had strong backing from cities and police and fire departments throughout the county. They received a $154-million grant to pay for building most of the data system, with a voice communications system to follow. Member cities were to shoulder operating costs.

But some cities, concerned about costs and objections from residents, began dropping out. The county firefighters union, citing potential health concerns about the towers' radio frequency emissions, enlisted neighbors who were upset about the sudden appearance of the 70-feet-tall towers in their communities. On March 24, county supervisors suspended construction on the towers and ordered officials to hold community meetings on the project. Shortly afterward, the Los Angeles City Council, on a motion by Councilmen Mitchell Englander and Herb Wesson, stopped construction of the towers at city police and fire stations.

Days later, the U.S. Department of Commerce, which had issued the grant, ordered system officials to submit a revised plan within 10 days or face the loss of its funding.

Mallon said his group had been in close communication with federal officials and that they were receptive to the revisions. He expects to get official word within a couple of days.

The county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will take up the revised plan, which also calls for stepped-up outreach to communities.

Only two of the towers in the revised plan are in residential areas, Mallon said, with the rest in commercial districts, in unpopulated areas or along freeways.

He said the revised list of tower sites does not include any of those that had sparked the most controversy and that there will be a process for removing those fully or partly built in communities that strongly object to them.

The grant requires that the entire data system be finished by Sept. 30. Mallon said construction on the towers must be started no later than May 1 to meet the deadline. So far, only one has been completed and construction has begun at just 13 of the 46 tower and two satellite sites.

Some officials expressed confidence that the project would find greater acceptance once the public understands the importance of having a communications system — reserved for first responders — that can send help quickly and efficiently in a disaster.

Rescue operations after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack in New York City were greatly hampered because the city's police and firefighters used different communications systems and could not talk with one another.