After years in limbo, what has been dubbed one of the most important emergency preparedness and homeland security projects in the state is about to take shape.

A joint powers authority will receive bids in January for the initial phase of a pioneering communications system that would, for the first time, allow Los Angeles County's 34,000 first responders and 17,000 second responders to, basically, talk with each other.

The need for such a system was first highlighted by communication breakdowns among emergency personnel during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But local law enforcement and firefighters say a better system is needed for all types of emergencies, whether it's an earthquake, wildfire or mass school shooting like the one last week in Newtown, Conn.

Currently, law enforcement and fire departments use an often incompatible and outdated patchwork of radio technologies and frequencies, which can significantly hamper a coordinated response to calamities and endanger lives.

The proposed Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System (LA-RICS) is intended to replace that.

"This will let emergency crews respond anywhere in the county - whether inside their city, outside their city, from the northern and southern regions of the county, east, west and beyond - using a common radio system," said Pat Mallon, the project's executive director. "Nothing like this has ever been undertaken before.


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Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said when multiple agencies respond to an emergency, they sometimes have to wait hours or longer for a vehicle to drive up with the equipment to put their radios on the same frequency.

"When the 2009 Station Fire first began, we had firefighters from different departments that weren't able to communicate," Osby said. "Sometimes it takes us at least a day, minimum, to bring in our radio communication experts to patch up frequencies among firefighters.

"And when we bring in (second responders) like public works personnel for street closures and for coordinating traffic flow, Southern California Edison for power line issues, and animal control for evacuation of animals, we cannot communicate with them either," he added.

Mallon declined to reveal the current expected cost of the project, because the bidding process remains open. He acknowledged, however, that an estimate from a number of years ago was $600 million.

To date, the federal government has committed $240 million. Mallon is hoping for additional federal grants, but added the LA-RICS Joint Powers Authority has also considered a bond or tax initiative, or a lease-to-own arrangement with whoever wins the contract to create the system.

They hope to begin construction in June 2014, more than a decade since Los Angeles officials realized the need for the technology after seeing the communications breakdowns among first responders in New York City following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

State Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Long Beach, helped accelerate the implementation of LA-RICS through recent legislation when he served in the Assembly. Lara said the project has both public safety and economic benefits.

"It's critical to the health and safety of millions of Californians and it also creates 2,000 jobs, which couldn't come at a better time," Lara said.

"Trying to anticipate a major disaster, either a terrorist attack or an earthquake, which some say is inevitable in our region, we need to make sure we have the best integrated system to ensure that all public safety officials are able to communicate efficiently and in a manner that saves lives."

The initial phase of LA-RICS involves building a land-based radio system, which includes the walkie-talkies strapped onto a first responder's belt.

"The L.A. City and L.A. County fire departments, which are the largest in this region, we use different frequencies to talk so we have to patch the frequencies, or swap radios, or carry two radios, to communicate," Osby said. 

The next phase of LA-RICS - if it proceeds - calls for creating a broadband wireless network for transmitting data. It could be used with programs for facial recognition, fingerprint identification and license plate reading, and could provide real-time information on patients.

"A firefighter responding to a fire in a commercial building could do searches of building plans for that jurisdiction, look at the interior design of the building, and perhaps find out in which corner they store their chlorine gas," Mallon said.

"Also, a helicopter flying orbits around a crime scene can stream video back to the command post, or to the officers that are embedded around it," he added.

The Obama administration is currently developing plans for a nationwide wireless broadband network for public safety, however, and that second phase of LA-RICS would only move forward if it is compatible.

christina.villacorte@dailynews.com

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