The U.S. Commerce Department on Friday suspended funding for an increasingly problem-plagued Los Angeles County emergency communications system, noting the project is "severely behind schedule."
Federal officials ordered communications project managers to "stop all work immediately" on what would be the largest such system in the nation.
The decision to suspend a $154-million grant to the Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System Authority, known as LA-RICS, is a severe blow to a project intended to allow every cop and firefighter in the county to communicate during major emergencies such as an earthquake or terrorist attack.
The department's decision gives LA-RICS until April 13 to submit an amended project plan, which county officials said they would do.
The federal action comes after several cities dropped out of the project and firefighters and residents balked at the construction of cell towers at neighborhood fire stations and elsewhere.
Two weeks ago, after being bombarded with complaints that the project was moving forward without adequate notice to residents, the county Board of Supervisors ordered a halt to the construction of towers that had drawn opposition. Among other things, board members told project officials to hold community meetings on all the planned tower sites.
This week, the Los Angeles City Council voted to stop construction of towers at city fire and police stations and urged a number of other changes to the project.
Officials had been racing to complete by a Sept. 30 deadline the first phase of the two-part project, which involves building a network of towers to transmit data to public safety agencies. County officials recently asked Congress to approve an extension.
The federal grant was to pay for 80% of the work on the data system, with the county and cities paying the rest.
A separate radio communications system is planned and cities who joined in the project are to share the operating costs of the whole system. More troubles arose recently when more than a dozen cities dropped out, leaving those remaining to shoulder a larger share of the costs.
Supervisor Don Knabe called Friday's news "disappointing and frustrating."
In a statement, he refuted claims by firefighters and others that radio frequency emissions from the towers posed a health hazard, calling it "disingenuous rhetoric."
"We now have 10 days to formulate a new plan … it is important that Los Angeles County be the first to make this project operational," Knabe said.
The county's interim chief executive officer, Sachi Hamai, said the grant suspension "represents a setback that we believe can — and must — be overcome to ensure the safety of Los Angeles County residents."
She promised the county will submit a new plan to complete the project by the April 13 deadline. She added that county supervisors will head a delegation to Washington on April 20 "to personally seek support for this crucial communications system."
The project grew out of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when rescue operations were hampered by New York City's police and firefighters using different radio systems. The federal government urged authorities in large metropolitan areas to build emergency communications systems that would allow separate agencies to work together quickly and efficiently and offered grants to help pay for them.
Local officials formed the LA-RICS Authority in 2009, with strong backing from the Sheriff's Department, the county Fire Department and most of the county's 88 cities.