Escondido, CA

City to invest in multi-million dollar emergency radio system

Assistant City Mgr. Jay Petrek and newly installed Fire Chief Rick Vogt got a pretty thorough grilling at Wednesday’s city council meeting about a new emergency radio system that the city will be investing about $6.8 million in so it can communicate with local emergency agencies.

The expense would be the city’s share of a regional radio infrastructure for a countywide system that will be activated in June of 2019. It would be spread out over ten years.

Mayor Sam Abed was particularly interested in making sure that the city wouldn’t be spending money on a system that, while costing millions over the new 20 years, might become obsolete before then. The item was on the consent calendar—which means that under normal circumstances it would have been passed without discussion. However, any member of the council can “pull” consent items to be discussed, and the mayor chose to do that.

The item was to fund the Next Generation Regional Communication System (NEXTGEN  RCS) infrastructure, radios and support devices, authorization of a lease-purchase agreement, and budget adjustment.

The City Council was asked to approve an adjustment to the budget for the a) the first installment of the NextGen RCS ‘backbone’ infrastructure, and b) the purchase and finance of portable and mobile radios, and support devices necessary to operate the system; and approve authorizing the Administrative Services Director to execute a lease-purchase agreement.

The council authorized the purchase of 537 portable and mobile Motorola radios and support devices totaling $2,868,118.  The city was able to participate in a purchase negotiated by County staff, who obtained a 27% discount on the equipment by purchasing from the manufacturer.

The total cost over the ten years for the city’s contribution to the system and to buy the radios will be $6.8 million.

The city will pay for the radio equipment using a combination of Development Impact Fees totaling $659,668 that it already has on hand and  loan proceeds totaling $2,208,450 through a lease-purchase agreement. The loan will be amortized over seven years at 2.79% with annual payments of about $349,500, which will be taken from the General Fund.

This enables the city to take part in a $70 million regional communications system shared among 50 agencies, with the purchases financed over ten years. The agencies include such entities as cities, tribes, the port authority. Only San Diego Police Department will be opting out.

Petrek explained that the capital costs for the NextGen RCS program would be $6,852,370 amoritized over ten years.

“Based on Escondido’s estimated current population of 150,000 residents, this amortizes to approximately $2.30 per person, per year, for the 20-year program,” said the assistant manager.

The mayor was skeptical. “We did sign a contract with the county to participate in this regional communication system and I see the value, but it’s a lot of money. I just want to make sure the public safety makes the case for us,” he said.

Petrek noted that this item was a continuation of action the council first took in February 2014.

The system will install various equipment around the county to be used during both emergency and non-emergency situations. Part of the budget adjustment goes to pay for the backbone system and the portable and mobile equipment, that will be used by both emergency and non-emergency employees.

Petrek explained that the “backbone” system was designed to last 20 years, “and the radios have a 20-year lifespan.” He added, “We have current radios we are using that have been in place for twenty years.”

“I’m a former IBM guy,” said Abed. “I don’t know how the technology can last for 20 years. It’s unrealistic.”

Given the number of radios being purchased, Abed asked, “Will every city employee have one?”

Petrek said the radios would be given to fire, police, utilities and code enforcement workers, and that some would share them. He explained that the radios are designed to use software that can be replaced so the radios will have a lifespan of about 20 years.

After the explanation, Abed said, “It’s a lot of money to be spent, I just wanted to make sure I understand.”

Councilmember Ed Gallo asked if there was a market for the old radios. He was told that they are research that question. Gallo also asked if the radios would be able to communication with agencies not only in the county, but in the state and nation, as well.

“If we have a major catastrophe we need to talk to each other.” Harkening back to some of the wildfires that swept through the County, Gallo said, “I don’t want a situation where we had planes on the fire but nobody knew what to do and the planes sat there for hours and then finally between Cal fire and the other departments they agreed ‘OK, I guess we’ll do this.’ We need snap, snap, snap responses. That was my biggest concern.”

Chief Vogt said the communication system, “Can literally talk to agencies around the nation.”

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