Friday, June 23, 2017
[Santa Barbara County] Grand jury report targets inadequate radio communication in emergencies
During its annual review of the county's detention facilities, the civil grand jury learned there are areas where sheriff's deputies cannot communicate with fellow officers because of their remote locations, prompting jurors to pose the question, "Is our safety at risk?"
Their report, released Monday, urges officials to improve the current emergency radio communication infrastructure in Santa Barbara County or switch to an entirely new system for law enforcement officer safety as well as public safety.
To eliminate "dead spots" in radio coverage, the jury recommends the addition of radio towers that provide adequate coverage and are made operational as soon as possible.
The problem areas are in remote parts of the county and in deep canyons and valleys, according to the report.
County law enforcement officers said the outlying areas of the Santa Maria Valley prove problematic to radio transmissions, and deputies in Carpinteria told jurors that in certain areas, their radios had weak signals.
The Cuyama Valley was noted as another problem area.
“The jury learned that, in one instance, a deputy was unable to call for assistance due to the lack of radio coverage," the report read. "For the safety of all, it is essential that they are able to be in contact with their communication center at all times.”
The sheriff concurs with the recommendations and is actively working with General Services on the implementation of a plan that will address most of the dead spots in the county, according to Kelly Hoover, Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman.
She added that the Board of Supervisors approved $900,000 for radio infrastructure upgrades.
The Sheriff's Office has been aware of the issues for some time, she added, and has already taken steps to improve its radio system.
In the North County, county officials are working on adding new towers in the southwest section of Santa Maria and south of the city on Mount Solomon.
In the South County, county leaders are partnering with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to build a tower on Santa Cruz Island, which could improve communications, as many of the area's canyons and valleys reach toward the ocean and the offshore antenna.
To help the Cuyama Valley area, Santa Barbara and Ventura County Fire Department leaders are building a new communication tower on a mountain peak in Kern County that will help provide more radio coverage.
In its report, the civil grand jury also recommended that the Sheriff's Office explore becoming part of the Santa Maria Police Department’s new radio system.
The Santa Maria Police Department began working on upgrading its radio infrastructure when it moved to its new facility on Betteravia Road by investing in an upgraded Motorola radio system, which works on a 700 megahertz frequency with broadband internet support.
Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin called the system “the best Motorola has to offer.”
The inspiration to upgrade Santa Maria’s law enforcement communication systems came from incidents like the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which brought police agencies from around the region to Los Angeles to help. When police officers from San Diego, Arizona and even Santa Maria arrived in Los Angeles, they couldn’t communicate with other officers.
With the 700 MHz system, a police car from Santa Maria can go to Sacramento and communicate with Sacramento emergency response agencies while, also, communicating with Santa Maria radios.
There are only few public safety agencies in the country that have upgraded to a system of this type. Santa Maria is only the fifth after New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas to make the upgrade.
With the infrastructure investments made by Santa Maria and its location between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Santa Maria is in a position to help other local agencies upgrade, too.
Once it is live, the city will be able to rent use of the system to different agencies to help support and upgrade their communication systems.
Santa Maria City Manager Rick Haydon called the investment into the upgraded system “entrepreneurial.”
The Hancock College Police Department recently signed on to be part of the system. Other agencies that could benefit from Santa Maria Police Department's new system include police departments in Lompoc, Buellton and Guadalupe, along with the Santa Maria Fire Department.
The 700 MHz system will also, for a fee, be capable of putting direct lines of communication to emergency services in every classroom and school in the city of Santa Maria.
The initial investment to be a part of Santa Maria’s system is significant, however. A new user would have to purchase all of its radios and other equipment first, and a single piece of equipment could cost a few thousand dollars.
Hoover said Santa Maria's system complies with anticipated mandatory changes and added the Sheriff's Office would be having discussions with all of its safety partners on the issue in the months and years ahead.
The Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Office will issue an official response to the grand jury in 60 days.
The civil grand jury is an independent organization created to shine a light on corrupt, unjust or unfair government practices in the county.
The 19-member panel has the power to investigate, evaluate and make recommendations to any city, county or special district agency that receives public funds. The jury also inspects jails and detention facilities in the county and investigates when someone dies in custody.
June 22, 2017
By Logan B. Anderson