New System to Enhance Fire-Call Capabilities

Times Staff Writer

All 27 fire departments in Orange County are moving toward purchase of a multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art communications network to replace the current system, which authorities describe as overburdened and antiquated.

The new system, which will almost double the number of radio channels available, will provide better clarity, freedom from interference and the ability to penetrate buildings, among other advantages.

Orange County’s fire agencies will become the first in the state with the “ultra-high frequency” system, said Gary Oldham, Orange County fire communications supervisor.


The new system “drastically increases the communication capabilities for all Orange County fire agencies,” Orange County Batallion Chief Patrick Walker said.

‘Old, Antiquaited’

The current system, which is 33 years old, is overburdened and often overloaded, he said.

“It’s old, it’s antiquated and we’re running out of frequencies,” Walker said.

Under the current system, firefighters are subject to a “radio skip,” or interference. “Sometimes we get Syracuse, N. Y., on our radio system,” Walker said.

While reaching fire agencies in the Midwest or North is not uncommon, contact between Orange County cities often is impossible with the current system.

“With our available technology, a fire engine in San Clemente probably can’t talk to a fire agency in Laguna Beach,” Oldham said. “With the new system, a fire agency in San Clemente will be able to communicate with an agency in La Habra--which absolutely cannot happen today.”

In the works for the last five years, the system will increase the number of channels from 11 to 20, improve communications at emergency scenes and give firefighters capabilities they now do not have, Walker said.

For example, Anaheim Fire Chief Darrell Hartshorn wrote in a city staff report, the system will allow firefighters to “speak freely through concrete and steel buildings.” Currently, firefighters “are not able to communicate via portable radio in a high-rise building without first gaining outside access,” he said.


“Right now, we’re lucky if we can talk from a walkie-talkie inside a building to a fire engine outside a house,” Oldham said.

Even when the firefighters have visual contact, there is sometimes interference with the communication under the current system.

“During certain fire conditions, we can’t talk to each other across the canyon or city limit,” Buena Park Fire Chief Sam Winner said. “We can see each other but can’t communicate (via radio).”

With $7.1 million allocated earlier this year by the Orange County Board of Supervisors, the county Fire Department now awaits final commitment to the joint agreement from the county’s cities, Walker said. Anaheim and Huntington Beach gave their final nod last week, and all 26 cities and the county have already given their conceptual agreement, he said.

Each fire agency will purchase whatever compatible equipment it needs in addition to that provided by the county’s $7.1-million allocation, Oldham said.

Officials are negotiating with Motorola Inc. for the new fire communications system, which is expected to be in operation within the next year and a half to two years, Walker said. An agreement with Motorola is expected within the next few weeks, he said.


The system will be especially useful during large emergencies, Walker said, pointing to the 1982 fire in Gypsum Canyon that burned more than 16,000 acres, caused $11 million in damage and destroyed 17 homes.

“On a major land fire, we could have as many as 1,100 people, necessitating communications to as many as 400 radios,” Walker said. Currently, to alleviate the overburdening of the system, special portable radios are flown in, usually from out of state, he said. But “when we have an emergency, others (may) have an emergency, too,” and during those emergencies, Walker said, portable systems “are at a premium.”