Emergency communications to become more secure in Ventura
By Justin Formanek 01/10/2013
The Ventura City Council approved on Dec. 7 a recommendation to accept grant funds from the Department of Homeland Security for a microwave communications project that will upgrade the radio infrastructure within the city.
Currently, radio communications within Ventura depend heavily on antiquated phone lines to carry most of the transmissions between the police department, public works, water and wastewater departments. Any radio transmissions from dispatchers must currently travel through phone lines to a transmission tower atop Hall Mountain and Wills Peak in Ventura. From there, signals are relayed to employees’ radios in the field. Conversely, inbound communications must travel the same route in reverse.
While the existing system is adequate for day-to-day use, it is incredibly vulnerable. In the event of a natural disaster, such as an earthquake or wildfire, the phone lines on which the system relies could be compromised or even destroyed. This would force the entire city to communicate via various short-range antennae. The resulting coverage would not be citywide and would severely hamper communications during field operations and rescues.
“Law enforcement and fire — what we call first responders — are absolutely and totally dependent on their communications system,” said Dan Richards, deputy chief information officer for Ventura County.
The necessity of communication, particularly during an emergency or a disaster, is why a microwave system is preferable. It will continue to work, even in the event of a tower being compromised, unlike a cellular system, which can easily be overwhelmed or inoperable under similar strain.
“It is very compartmentalized,” said Richards. “Even losing components of radio, we can still continue to function. That kind of redundancy and resilience is what you find in most public-safety wireless networks, because it works.”
The savings inherent in a switch to microwave communication is also attractive. After a one-time cost for purchase and installation, Ventura will save approximately $5,800 annually by eliminating phone lines. Yearly maintenance costs are also expected to decline.
In addition, Redondo Beach-based Advanced Electronics Inc., which will install and service the new equipment, currently provides support for the Ventura Police Department’s Motorola radio system. Its familiarity with the existing infrastructure is expected to expedite the upgrade, and all new equipment will be covered under an existing maintenance agreement.
But is microwave communication safe? Simply put: yes.
The word “microwave” is a bit ambiguous, referring to any electromagnetic wave with a frequency between 100 megahertz and 30 gigahertz. Microwave radio transmitters operate on different frequencies and at different power levels from the kitchen appliances that can bake a potato in less than five minutes. Wireless LANs (local area networks), cell phones, satellites and radar systems all operate within the same spectrum as the radio transmitters.
“It’s very safe, very directional, very controlled and does not pose any risk to anyone,” said Richards. “Otherwise, quite frankly, we wouldn’t be using it.”
The total bill for the Microwave Communications Project is $123,000, with $53,000 pooled from various sources, such as wastewater and water operating funds, the public works facilities replacement fund, and the public works and police department patrol general funds. The remaining $70,000 comes from an Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant supplied by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
The UASI program supplies funding to select high-threat, high-density urban areas in order to implement and sustain both preventative and responsive capabilities with regard to threats or acts of terrorism.
In 2008, DHS officially designated the Oxnard-Thousand Oaks area UASI. While the core cities were listed as Oxnard, Thousand Oaks, Ventura and Camarillo, the geographic area covered included Ventura County as a whole. In 2009 and 2010 combined, the local USAI received a little more than $4 million in funding.
“We got a phone call saying that risk analysis showed that the Oxnard-Thousand Oaks urban area qualified as an area to be funded,” said local UASI Program Administrator Susan Duenas. “Out of the 100 most populated areas, our risk was high enough to meet the threshold for funding.”
This was when Ventura County was among 64 urban areas identified by the UASI. Today, only 31 areas are eligible for funding, with Ventura no longer among them. The Microwave communications project is funded by the 2010 grant and, if completed, will join an expansive list of emergency preparedness initiatives that have already been implemented.
“All the funding has been used very wisely in the whole region,” said Duenas. “We are definitely more prepared than we were 10 years ago.”
While the City Council has accepted the USAI funding, a timeline for completion of the microwave communications project has yet to be established.