Faced with protests from scores of firefighters and residents from across Los Angeles County, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday decided to slow down work on a long-awaited, comprehensive emergency communications system.
Supervisors had been scheduled to instruct county officials to negotiate site agreements for more of the cell towers needed for the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System.
Officials face a Sept. 30 deadline to complete a key part of the project or forfeit a chunk of the $154 million that the federal government is contributing to its construction.
Instead, to the cheers of protesters who flocked to the board hearing room, supervisors unanimously agreed to halt work on the cell towers that have drawn objections, seek a deadline extension and explore other ways to build and pay for the system.
In the motion, written by Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, the board also ordered system officials to host community meetings to address concerns about safety, costs, aesthetics and property values.
Supervisors want an update in two weeks.
While acknowledging that building a system that lets police and firefighters to talk to each other during emergencies "is important and universally supported," Antonovich said officials owe "greater transparency and inclusion in this project" to employees and residents.
One Agoura resident told supervisors during an emotion-packed public hearing on the project that residents hadn't received any word of plans to build a 70-foot cell tower at the nearby county fire station.
"We all woke up one morning and there it was," said Jere Berkley. "We want our due process!"
Many speakers raised concerns about the towers' radio frequency emissions.
An 85-year-old Palos Verdes Peninsula resident with a pacemaker said his doctor told him to avoid getting near cell towers. Then he saw one rise at the county fire station across the street from his home.
County experts said the towers' radio waves are well within federal safety limits and give off far less than a cellphone or a baby monitor.
But the county firefighters union, which has enlisted neighbors in its fight against the towers, said the standards are outdated, and representatives produced statements from other experts raising concerns about repeated exposure to tower emissions.
Conceived in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when rescue efforts were hampered because police and firefighters could not communicate with each other, local officials have spent years developing a two-part radio and data public safety system.
Once completed, it would be the largest such emergency communications system in the nation.
It would cover 88 cities and the unincorporated area of the county -- scattered across some 4,000 square miles -- and provide integrated communications for more than 50 law enforcement agencies and 31 fire departments, as well as to emergency medical services, transportation and education agencies.
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