OAKLAND -- Fixing Oakland's much criticized public safety radio system is going to cost at least $15 million more than first anticipated after a study showed it's not just the city's radio infrastructure that's substandard -- the radios are, too.
A city-commissioned report released Friday from RCC Consultants recommends that Oakland replace its fleet of 2,700 radios "as soon as possible." The replacement cost is estimated between $15 million and $20 million.
City leaders said they were committed to upgrading the radios and planned to enter talks to disband its city-run radio system and join a regional radio network that includes nearly every East Bay city.
Oakland has been working feverishly for the past year to repair a radio system that frequently went dead on officers. The most famous malfunction occurred during a visit last year by President Barack Obama.
The report found that Oakland had made substantial progress in reducing interference and upgrading the system infrastructure. The biggest remaining problem, it found, was its fleet of Harris P7200 radios.
"We knew the system was junk; now we find out the radios we have around our belts are junk, too," said Sgt. Barry Donelan, who heads the Oakland police union.
The city received the radios free of charge beginning in 2007 from the mobile phone operator Sprint-Nextel under an agreement that required the company to compensate cities for interference issues it caused to their radio systems.
But the agreement, which was worth about $9 million for Oakland, did not require the company to provide top-of-line models, said David Cruise the city's radio expert. Whereas BART supplemented its funds from the company to buy higher-end radios, Oakland did not and ended up with an older model whose performance nose-dived after the city switched from analog to digital two years ago.
"The city tried to cut a deal on the cheap and it backfired badly," Donelan said. "I don't know how you send all your public safety officers all over the city with garbage radios."
Cruise said the problem wasn't so much the radios, but that the city didn't start performing maintenance on them until he came on board last year.
"It's like a car," he said. "If you don't maintain it, it's going to fall apart."
Public safety radios are expected to last about six to eight years, Cruise said.
City Administrator Deanna Santana said the city would move quickly to finance the purchase of new radios, and Counciman Noel Gallo said he was willing to spend the money.
"If you want to have an effective police department, you have to give them the technology and the tools," he said.
Both the City Council and the police union have been pushing hard for Oakland to dump its radio system and join the East Bay Regional Communications System Authority -- a regional consortium designed to provide coverage for both Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
The consultant's report released Friday found the two systems performed similarly in Oakland. It also found that over the next five years it will cost Oakland about $24.2 million to transfer to the regional system versus only $20 million to keep its own operating. The major cost in both instances is the purchase of new radios.
The move to explore joining the regional system is based primarily on the city's concerns over whether it has the financial wherewithal to properly maintain its radios and infrastructure over the long haul, Santana said.
Santana is asking the City Council for authorization to begin talks with the radio consortium.
The two entities have butted heads in the past. The consortium was not pleased that Oakland refused to join when it formed a decade ago and has refused to program Oakland radios to work on its system, limiting the ability of first responders to communicate in an emergency.
Oakland is concerned that it would constitute 17 percent of the consortium's radio users, but might not have fair representation on the board of directors.
The consortium's executive director Bill McCammon said members were open to giving Oakland a voice on the board.
"We're pleased that we'll have an opportunity to sit down with them and work through the governance issues," he said. "Hopefully, they will partner with us and come on the system."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435