Feds approve L.A. County emergency system revisions; work can resume

Emergency system protest
Los Angeles County firefighers express their concerns about cell towers at fire stations during a meeting of the Board of Supervisors.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Federal officials on Friday gave a thumbs up to revisions in a Los Angeles County-wide emergency communications project, lifting an earlier suspension of a $154.6-million construction grant and allowing work to resume immediately.

Officials decided that the downsized plan submitted on April 20 still “would deliver substantial benefits to the Los Angeles public safety community” and could be finished by the Sept. 30 deadline, said Heather Phillips. She is spokeswoman for the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which oversees the grant.

But the officials also added some conditions that made it clear they want to keep close tabs on the progress of the downsized project, known as the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System.

When the project was initiated in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it had widespread support because it was to enable firefighters, police officers and other first responders to communicate with one another and speed help in a major earthquake or other disaster.


An authority was formed to build and oversee what was envisioned as a model for other vast urban areas in the nation. The system, to be reserved for use only by public safety personnel, calls for a broadband network for transmitting data and a separate but compatible radio communications system.

The federal government agreed to bear most of the cost of building the system, and participating cities are to share the cost of operating it.

But growing problems threatened to derail the project. The firefighters union, citing safety concerns about having up to 70-foot-tall communications towers at fire stations, enlisted help from neighbors caught off guard by the sudden appearance of towers at stations close to their homes. Cities, worried about costs and feeling pressure from residents, began dropping out of the project, leaving those remaining to shoulder a larger portion of the costs.

The authority scrambled to keep things on track, but on April 3, after it was forced to drop all but 46 of the 155 planned cell tower sites, federal authorities suspended the grant and demanded the authority come up with a workable alternative.


Local officials scaled back the project and planned to use portable cell towers to help fill coverage gaps. They also planned more community meetings to let residents know more about the project and continued to look for additional tower sites.

Friday’s notification that work can resume was “basically very good news,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe. He added that he had not yet seen the letter but was gratified that the grant suspension was lifted.

“At this point, the project seems to have legs again,” Knabe said, “and that’s very good for the residents of Los Angeles County.”

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