Send Clear Signal on Radios

Orange County's agreement to spend another $1 million on its emergency radio network is sensible and overdue. Yet there is no guarantee the extra money, on top of $82 million already spent, will solve all problems. Given the amount spent so far on such a major county contract and the importance of the project, it is imperative that the system be made to function well.

The Orange County Grand Jury did a good job of spelling out the system's problems in a report earlier this year. Sheriff Michael S. Carona, in a reply last month to the grand jury's findings, said the new radio system was a dramatic improvement over the old one and recent failures by the new system had not put lives in jeopardy.

Well, with a price tag of more than $80 million, it stands to reason that the new system would be better. And since the old one was put together in the 1970s--before digital superseded analog, before computers became widespread, before a technological revolution that put cell phones and e-mail on just about every block--of course the new system was better.

But the men and women who rely on the radios to save lives said the new equipment still is not good enough.

The 1993 fires in Laguna Beach demonstrated the need for a new radio system that would let cities communicate with one another and with the county. Laguna Beach firefighters reported problems in communication as the blazes destroyed homes.

The county responded by proposing a $100-million system that would include communications for all law enforcement, fire departments, public safety agencies and public works. Then came the county's bankruptcy. The proposal was trimmed to $82 million; with two proposed relay towers eliminated and the signal strength trimmed.

When the radios were first used last year, police in the Irvine and Tustin headquarters buildings reported having trouble hearing dispatchers at times even when they were close by. County officials said the problems did not seem too bad and at any rate they would be fixed. But as the system became more widespread, officers and firefighters reported difficulty communicating on the Balboa Peninsula and along the San Clemente shore.

The grand jury has warned that more antennas may be required.

Currently, there are 21 antennas in the county, with more in the north than in the south. But given the increases in population and in construction in South County, that may be the locale for more new antennas.

Having committed to the new system, county and city officials must ensure that it works well and public safety is not jeopardized.

But having spent so much already, the county must make every additional dollar count. Hold the manufacturer responsible if there are equipment problems.

But if the county needs to do more, delay is unacceptable.

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