L.A. County supervisors OK scaled back emergency communications plan

L.A. County supervisors OK scaled back emergency communications plan
L.A. County firefighter Tim Brun joins dozens of others protesting the continued development and construction of cell towers by the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System. A revised plan recently eliminated the towers at county fire stations. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

A stalled emergency communications project for Los Angeles County cleared a major hurdle Tuesday when the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a scaled-back plan and allowed most work to resume.

The revised plan must win approval from the federal government, which provided a $154-million grant to cover 80% of the cost for building a data communications system. The system must be finished by Sept. 30 or the county will lose a chunk of the grant.


And officials overseeing the project, known as the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System, say they must begin construction on the remaining parts by May 1 if they are to meet their deadline.

They also must  do a better job of selling the project to residents and their elected officials, county supervisors have said.

The project, which also is to include a radio communications system currently in the design and review stage, had wide support when it was conceived in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.

But cities began dropping out, citing operational cost concerns.  County firefighters, citing potential safety hazards from the towers' radio frequency emissions, enlisted neighbors and others alarmed when the towers, some as high as 70 feet, sprang up in their communities with little or no public discussion.

The Los Angeles City Council recently stopped tower construction at city police and fire stations. A few days later, the U.S. Commerce Department, noting the project was "severely behind schedule," put a hold on funding and ordered work to stop while local officials came up with a revised plan.

Supervisors hailed Tuesday's vote as a significant step toward getting the project back on track.

Supervisor Don Knabe said "it's been a very hard thing" to balance concerns of communities and county firefighters with the need for a system to allow first-responders throughout the 4,060-square mile county to talk with one another in a major disaster.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said the project "has given a lot of heartburn on all sides" but added she was "really kind of proud of us" for listening to concerns and finding "a middle ground."

"I think this is a good start," Kuehl said. "I think we have done as well as we could."

The revised plan, which would reduce the system's range, calls for 46 data towers -- down from the originally planned 177, with none located at county fire stations -- plus two satellite installations and 15 portable cell towers to be located on state-owned sites.

Officials also are in talks with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Harbor Department to locate data towers on DWP land in Sylmar and at the port police station. And they hope to some day add more tower sites, including at Los Angeles Police Department stations.

Although work was allowed to resume on most sites in the revised plan, supervisors ordered that community outreach sessions must be completed at six controversial places before construction can begin anew. The sites are sheriff's stations in Santa Clarita, Crescenta Valley, Industry and Pico Rivera and police stations in Bell Gardens and El Monte.

In a related action Tuesday, supervisors also approved rules for commercial interests wanting to use county communications towers, including prohibiting them from using towers closer than 250 feet from a residence and at any place where firefighters sleep or live.

Some residents said that was still too close.


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