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A Model of Communications Interoperability
Author: Robert Stoffel, Communications Division Director, Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Department
Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
Orange County, California
By Robert Stoffel, Communications Division Director, Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Department
originally published in our March, 2008 issue.
In 1934, the first Orange County (CA) public safety radio system was put on the air. KGHX was a one-way system, transmitting messages from headquarters to the field.The obvious problems with one-way communications prompted the “mobile radio” to be established just three years later. Various VHF and UHF systems were developed and implemented over the next 40 years. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was apparent that the law enforcement system was at capacity and no additional UHF and VHF frequencies were available to expand the systems.
The Orange County Chiefs of Police & Sheriffs Association defined the requirements for a new state-of-the-art public safety communications system in 1982. About that time, the FCC had approved new 800 MHz frequencies for use by public safety, and the County of Orange determined that this new spectrum would meet the needs of a new system. Fast forward to 1996 when the Joint Agreement was executed with our 31 cities, defining the implementation, operation, and financial management of the new radio system.
From 1997 through 2001, our team built 15 new remote radio sites and modified six others. Partnered with Motorola, we installed and tested backbone equipment and new consoles in every law enforcement dispatch center, and started the task of developing over 300 radio templates and the training of over 15,000 users. Between May 1999 and November 2001, we transitioned more than 100 law, fire, lifeguard, and public works operations to this new system.
Orange County is fortunate in that we have the benefit of our own communications division. Orange County Sheriff Communications has a staff of 90 employees who provide radio engineering, technical services, maintenance and repair services, and the operational and financial oversight for the 800 MHz radio system. Our personnel were the central point for developing the standard operating procedures, and publish a monthly newsletter highlighting system implementation progress. And finally, there was dedicated support from each of the 100 public safety departments that provided personnel to support their portion of the planning and implementation phases.
Today we have a system that serves our communities very well. The system supports over 17,000 radios, and that number is growing every year. We process approximately 21 million transmissions each year. Our daily average is 50,000 to 60,000 radio transmissions, and our single-day record is nearly 87,000 transmissions during a weather-related event that impacted many parts of the county. The total cost for implementation, including infrastructure, site development, and subscriber units was $94 million dollars, funded by the County Board of Supervisors, 31 cities (now 34), the County Executive Office, the Sheriff’s Department, and independent county departments.
I would like to highlight several features of our system, features that may serve you well as you plan a system of your own. First, we have a truly coordinated system with built-in interoperability by having all city and county first responders on a single system. Our trunked system uses 81 channels that allow us to have nearly 400 talk groups – an extremely efficient use of spectrum. And we also have the security of full-time encryption for all law enforcement agencies.
One of our most unique features is what we call the “Hot Red” receiver. Every city police and county sheriff patrol unit and every law enforcement dispatch center monitors a law enforcement emergency talk group known as Red. We do this by using a second receiver integrated by Motorola into a single control head. Law enforcement uses the Red talk group for dissemination of county-wide broadcasts, such as crimes just occurred, AMBER alerts, and our favorite here in Orange County … the Sigalert. For example, a recent use of the Red talk group occurred after a city in Orange County had an armed bank robbery; within minutes after the Red broadcast, a county Sheriff deputy observed the vehicle and took the suspect into custody.
Red also allows any field unit to obtain assistance, regardless of their current location and jurisdiction. Recently, a city police undercover unit transmitted on Red asking for assistance while they were in another jurisdiction. Minutes later, three stolen vehicle suspects were in custody. Red is also used during police pursuits when an agency leaves its city and enters another jurisdiction. This allows all law enforcement units county-wide to be aware of the progress of the pursuit and to make appropriate tactical decisions more effectively. “Hot Red” is truly a feature that we just could not live without, and one I would recommend it to any county planning a new system.
Another feature is a single talk group known as “Dispatch to Dispatch.” This talk group is only provided to dispatch centers and is used to share information or request assistance between dispatch centers. For example, an announcement may be made if a local PSAP loses its 9-1-1 trunks, or if an agency is looking for a specific language translator. As you can imagine, our dispatchers like this as they can save time by making one broadcast as opposed to calling surrounding agencies on the phone one by one.
Our county sheriff’s department has patrol helicopters, as does the California Highway Patrol and four city police departments. These helicopters monitor the “Air Call” talk group and are hailed by law enforcement dispatch centers that have an immediate need for helicopter support. It has really worked well, saving time so that telephoning each agency when looking for a helicopter is no longer necessary.
We provided one talk group in every radio, system-wide, that allows a user to reach a dispatcher 24/7. Our county-wide coordinated communications center, staffed by the Sheriff’s Department, takes any information and relays traffic as requested. This is especially helpful for personnel who work after hours and don’t have a dispatcher to communicate with, or for those who have traveled outside their normal operating area and have the need to reach a dispatcher.
We have a number of public and private organizations that need to communicate with our first responders but that do not use our 800 MHz radio system. In these cases, we allowed those users to purchase radios and we programmed the necessary talk groups so that they will have the interoperability necessary with Orange County public safety.
Because we have state and federal agencies in our county and public safety departments in adjoining counties that don’t have access to our 800 MHz radio system, we have added mutual aid repeaters in the VHF low-band, VHF high-band, UHF, and 800 MHz spectrums that provide county-wide coverage. Some of these channels are established state mutual aid frequencies, such as CLEMARS or NALEMARS. Others are Orange County–specific channels that other agencies may program into their radios. The intent is that when operating inside Orange County and there is a need to communicate with an Orange County agency, users may switch to these channels and be patched to our 800 MHz system. We used Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI), Homeland Security, COPS Grant, and Sheriff’s Department funds to implement this latest addition to our system.
I would like to take a moment to talk about some lessons learned. The first involves training. I can’t say enough about how important end-user training is. Knowledgeable trainers should present the training. We found that a system this complex requires communications professionals to present the hands-on training and to be able to answer questions effectively. We also provided several user guides, such as laminated cards and pocket-sized books, that contain information about the radio system, what the different talk groups are used for, how the radios are programmed, and what the buttons, knobs, and switches do.
Another lesson learned falls under the category of radio system failures. If you use a Motorola trunked radio system, you are familiar with several failure modes, such as Site Trunking or Failsoft. We want our personnel to understand these modes of operation and to better prepare our end users on how to operate in a failure mode. We actually fail the system on a quarterly basis and use this as a training opportunity. Our system has been extremely reliable, but we hope that by conducting this quarterly failure training, our users will be better prepared should an actual failure occur.
Be ready to compromise when it comes to radio tower site selection. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the “not in my backyard” mentality. We learned that the process of selecting a radio tower site, along with the permitting and development of sites, is lengthy and sometimes frustrating. Again, you may have to compromise!
And, a final lesson pertains to the focused partnership. One of the things that made our project the success that it is was a focused partnership between the cities, the county, and the contractor, which in our case was Motorola. Having such a partnership in place, with shared decision making, made a huge difference with the finished product.
We feel our system is a model of what a public safety communications system should be. I hope this information is helpful as you make plans for a new system in your community. Yes, it’s a lot of work, but with city and county leadership and support, a committed staff, and dedicated contractor, you can do it!
Robert Stoffel is the Communications Division director for the Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Department. If you would like more information or have any questions, Director Stoffel can be reached at 714-704-7919.