L.A. communications system faces more challenges

A new communications system that would link fire and police departments throughout L.A. County has been stymied by several setbacks recently. These include scrapping a second request for contract proposals, federal legislation that’s put on hold the purchase of $70-million worth of equipment, and delays that have forced the return of millions of dollars in federal grants.

The result: not one of the 255 antennas planned for the system has been installed.

Officials say the system would be vital during a regional emergency such as an earthquake, but after years of wrangling, the project appears to be back on the drawing board.

Earlier this month, the authority for the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System had to drop a second request for proposals because recent federal legislation ordered it to halt purchases of certain types of equipment and instead wait for a nationwide communications system to make sure all equipment is compatible.

The news came after the authority had already entered negotiations on two proposals.

“This is the most horrible possible time,” said Patrick Mallon, executive director of the L.A. County authority.

He wouldn’t release any cost information from the second request because a third is planned.

“We don’t want to compromise the procurement process,” Mallon said.

The first request for proposals was canceled in July 2011 when concerns arose that it violated the state construction code because one company was going to design and build the project, Mallon said. Since then, state lawmakers passed legislation allowing the county to contract with only one company.

Moving forward, work will proceed in phases, with prep work on the antenna sites kicking off first. The antennas usually will be attached to fire and police buildings, as well as other government-owned structures, Mallon said.

In some cases, antennas will be attached to so-called monopoles that will be no higher than 70 feet, he added.

Meanwhile, the L.A. County system has also been dogged by funding problems. Earlier this year, the authority had to return about $6.5 million from the 2008 Homeland Security program because of missed spending deadlines. It was able to spend about $303,000 of the 2008 funds on consulting fees and part of Mallon’s salary.

Because it also missed spending deadlines for funds from the 2009 State Homeland Security program, the authority had to return more than $4 million, which was recently “re-purposed” to member cities, including Glendale, which administers a separate radio system for member cities such as Burbank and Pasadena.

The repurposing came after the authority only managed to spend $1 million on radios and $704,000 on studies.

The Glendale City Council recently approved using the $2 million it got to make improvements to its Interagency Communications Interoperability System.

The local communications system, with Glendale serving as its hub, is already online and lets 25 agencies — including police, fire and healthcare facilities — communicate with each other.

It’s a shared system with components purchased and constructed by individual cities and linked together through a regional network at “the cost of a small municipal system,” according to the agency’s website, and has the ability to bring on many more agencies, officials say.

The county authority is already facing another grant deadline, this time for $154.6 million from the federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program. The deadline to use those funds is August 2013, but the authority has spent only about $3 million so far, Mallon said.

In the meantime, officials are trying to get an extension on spending the broadband funds, he added.

Due to the amount of funding at stake, Mallon said, the authority will push for an aggressive construction schedule once it gets the green light to start installation of equipment.

When that light will turn green is another matter altogether.

The board that will oversee the nationwide communications system was just named on Monday, Mallon said, so it will be awhile before details such as equipment compatibility can be addressed.

“But at least we now know who to talk to,” he said.

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