Radio System to Help Schools During Crises

Times Staff Writer

After the early-morning earthquake rocked the Los Angeles Basin on Oct. 1, 1987, frightened students and teachers gathered on the football field at Montebello Intermediate School and waited for further instructions.

"I walked out there with 500 kids waiting," remembers Darline Robles, who was principal at the time.

Telephone lines were down for three hours, and the school was cut off from the district office until maintenance workers were sent out with two-way radios, Robles said.

Although some buildings were damaged and aftershocks prevented students and staff from entering other buildings, school could not be called off without approval of district officials, Robles said. Officials eventually went from school to school to assess damage and determine whether to send students home.

Can Use Clear Channel

Recently, however, the Montebello Unified School District, which includes some schools in Monterey Park, purchased a new two-way radio system designed to prevent much of the confusion that occurred during the 1987 quake, said Robles, who now is the district's assistant superintendent for pupil and community services.

The new system will allow school officials to switch to a clear channel to discuss injuries and damages with district officials and emergency centers. And district officials will be able to relay their decisions, such as whether to close a school.

"They (the district office) had no way of supporting us," Robles said. "Now there will be a sense of security with people that can help us."

The development of a communications system was listed as the top priority by a district earthquake preparedness committee that was formed after the 1987 quake.

The committee's report to the Montebello Board of Education said a new system was necessary "because of the confusion, the rumors and not being able to get in touch with the district during the quake," said Janet Myers, assistant to Robles.

The Board of Education in July, 1988, approved a $200,000 disaster plan that included $60,000 for a new emergency communications system linking all schools to the district office, the county office of education in Downey--command center for county schools--and eventually to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department emergency operations center. New equipment arrived recently, and employees will begin training next month, Robles said.

The county education office has installed a more powerful system that allows participants to switch to clear channels during emergencies, said Charles Devlin, who oversees the office's communications network. Previously, the office was using one channel to keep in touch with 400 buses. "It's like having 400 buses on a single party (telephone) line," he said.

The Montebello district is the first to join the county education office's emergency system, Devlin said. Other school districts such as Long Beach have compatible radio equipment and could easily be connected, he added.

Bill Starkey, maintenance manager for Long Beach Unified, said his district is planning to join the emergency network in three or four months.

The radio network has the capacity to handle every school district in the county, Devlin said, and several districts have expressed an interest.

The Whittier City School District recently installed a $25,000 two-way radio system and may also join.

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