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Feather River Bulletin
Quincy, California
May 6, 2015     Feather River Bulletin
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May 6, 2015

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6B Wednesday, May 6, 2015 Bulletin, Record, Progressive, Reporter Grand Jury" Emergency communications face problems Editor's note: This is the third in a series of midterm reports submitted by the 2014-I5 Plumas County Civil Grand Jury. The grand jury plans to publish more midterm reports in the upooming weeks. SUMMARY The emergency services communications system in Plumas County plays a vital role in public safety. The communications system serves as an integral link between the public; police, fire and emergency medical services; and a central dispatch. Despite regular upgrades and routine maintenance, local police, fine and EMS dispatches occasionally face service outages. The recent heavy winds in February brought about widespread power outages throughout the county. Some of the major public safety radio sites went down because redundant backup power sources (generators and battery backups) failed. Communication disruptions are not unique to Plumas County. The grand jury has learned that neighboring counties, with similar rugged terrain and harsh weather, also suffer from service disruptions due to commercial and backup power failures as well as lapses in reception. The 2014-15 Plumas County Grand Jury found it necessary to examine the overall communications system to determine whether it reliably serves as a viable and effective information system. There are several natural factors hampering the reliabilRy of the system. As previously mentioned, the geography of Plumas County, with its heavily forested mountain ranges, steep canyons, rivers and creeks, poses a special challenge for emergency services communications. Steep terrain and remote canyons make it very difficult for communications and often cause interference and loss of radio service. In fact, some areas within the county are well known for dead spots or lapses. In addition, harsh weather can also have a detrimental role in the integrity of the system. Winds, heavy rain, and snow often lead to power outages and system breakdowns and make it difficult to access various mountaintop sites for repairs. Other, manmade, factors play into the quality of service of the system. On Jan. 1, 2013, the Federal Communications Commission implemented the "narrowband mandate," a federal ruling that cut in half the frequency bandwidth for all public safety and business mobile radio systems. This, in turn, caused a 20 - 30 percent loss of coverage across the nation. In mountainous areas such as Plumas County, coverage has been seriously compromised. In addition, given all the demands for high-speed Internet, some repeater sites in Plumas County that house emergency services communications equipment are shared with national carriers like Verizon, AT&T and DigitalPath. This, the grand jury has learned, has not only spawned occasional network interference, it has driven up the month-to-month site ' rental cost on the mountain. The Plumas County Sheriffs Office has been in charge of administering and maintaining the system for the past 20 years, and the Sheriffs Office has been able to take each impact, and fred a "workaround" solution and alternatives for most of the disruptions. Nonetheless, the public safety radio system, including _POliCe, fire and EMS Communications, is extremely important, and lapses and interference can seriously affect response times and endanger lives. Therefore, the grand jury's findings and recommendations are summarized here: Power outages can knock out emergency services communications. Recently, in February, high winds knocked out power throughout most of the county. Some of the repeater sites were down. In another instance, the power company shut off power to a radio site for nonpayment, causing the site to go down. The grand jury requests the Plumas County Board of Supervisors negotiate an agreement with the power company for notification of any pending disconnects at public safety radio sites. In addition, the grand jury recommends that the BOS and Office of Emergency Services consider more reliable power backup solutions to sites that are critical for public safety. Highway 70 along the Feather River Canyon is prone to rock slides and train derailments, and there are many spots where communications is poor. The grand jury requests the BOS look into ways to improve communications in primary transportation routes and environmentally sensitive areas. The grand jury offers several recommendations under the "Recommendations" section. The Plumas County fire communication system requires countywide coverage. There have reportedly been many instances of poor communications during fn'es and training exercises. The grand jury requests the BOS review communications issues with Plumas County fu'e district chiefs. The grand jury has learned that Cal Fire has installed its own repeaters at some Plumas County mountaintop sites. The grand jury suggests that the BOS work with Cal Fire for interoperability into the Cal Fire system. The grand jury has learned that EMS radio operations face rental increases on their repeater and dispatch system, and that funding may not cover monthly fees due to increased costs from mountaintop repeater costs and other factors such as equipment maintenance and repairs. The grand jury requests that the BOS and OES ensure the stability of the EMS radio system. A few Phunas County mountaintop radio sites are becoming more and more attractive commercially for private communication vendors, thus raising tower and shared-building costs and causing interference problems with the radio system. The grand jury requests the BOS and the Sheriffs Office pursue alternatives such as building and hosting their radio systems, as well as keeping focus on new technology such as FirstNet (First Responder Network Authority), a nationwide public safety broadband network. BACKGROUND The Plumas County emergency communications system has been in place for many years. It plays a vital role in providing communications for emergency responders in all types of emergencies, including fn'es, injuries, police actions and disasters. Therefore, this system must prevail and be in service 24/7 in emergency situations. The system, however, has had lapses and outages over the years. According to the Plumas County Sheriffs Office, communications have been lost or disrupted during emergency calls, training exercises, system testing and routine maintenance. Communication problems and poor service are not just isolated to Plumas County. Eighteen Northern California counties experience similar problems, and typically these problems occur from bad weather, interference from Other communication networks, malfunctioning or outdated equipment, and lack of training. The Plumas County emergency services communications system is a wireless topology consisting of mountaintop towers with microwave dishes, repeaters and signal processing equipment residing inside small bu'fldings at each site. This equipment relays voice traffic and data between police, fire, EMS and a central dispatch. There are 11 mountaintop communication sites throughout Plumas County. Most of these rely on commercial power to operate, although a few more remote locations are sollu: powered. Central Dispatch at the Most of these public safety Quincy Sheriffs Office was radio sites have a backup overwhelmed with calls generator and a backup during the storm. It is battery system that should uncertain just how many calls start once commercial power were not able to reach fails. At the present time there dispatch. Most of the radio is no way knowing for sure sites are privately owned and during commercial power each site owner is responsible outages whether the remote for preventative maintenance radio sites are up and working on its respective power and able to communicate, systems. Plumas County has three The grand jury has inquired separate systems that come into service outages that have under the supervision of the occurred in the past and found Sheriffs Office. One is that these outages are random dedicated to the Sheriffs and unpredictable. In regard Office and includes its own to outages, power failure repeaters and base stations, seems to be one of the primary Its equipment is newer than causes of communications that of fire and EMS. interruption. The second system is the Another common problem fire services system. It has its relates to the steep topography own set of repeaters and base in Plumas County. Many station, some co-located with remote spots within Plumas the Sheriffs Office equipment County have little or poor at local mountaintop sites, coverage, and communication and includes a separate base in those areas is not available. station at the SO plus base The only workarounds for stations in each of the ffn'e areas like this are portable districts. The time repeaters self-powered repeater/base are past their replacement due station units, of whichthe dates, but there is redundancy county has two systems. to the system, four levels in These field units are costly to the west county and two in the operate and, being mobile, east county, and the EMS they often can't be transported system, which consists of five to such rugged parts of the repeaters with a base station county. The only other real located at each hospital, alternative would be to add The EMS system is mainly additional fLxed sites that can for EMS providers to provide reach into otherwise information to hospitals about out-of-reach zones. their patients. The repeaters In addition to naturally for the EMS system are newer, occurring factors that but maintenance costs to keep interfere with the integrity of them running and site rental the system, the grand jury fees'are now greater than the also found that manmade funds that the hospitals set factors create impacts to the aside for that purpose, system. All three systems have some The Plumas County means of redundancy, emergency services system Redundancy is the ability to operates with a designated switchto an alternative path frequency bandwidth or repeater site in case a allocated by the Federal primary radio traffic route is Communications down. Commission. In 2013, the FCC The heavy winds and power issued the "narrowband outages that plagued Plumas mandate," which tightened County last February frequency ranges for provided important emergency services between revelations about the public 150 and 174 MHz, and also 421 radio system. When and 512 MHz. Essentially what Commercial power is cut off at this means is that the i the various radio sites, and mandate puts limits on the backup systems fail as well, public safety frequency band. the system is unable to handle For example, police and fire emergency calls, operate within the 150 MHz Private cellular carrier band and EMS operates service from AT&T, Sprint within the 450 MHz range. The and Verizon also depend on FCC narrowband mandate commercial power and they forces police and fire to too were down in some areas for over 24 hours. Reportedly See Grand Jury, page 7B Sudoku Puzzle #3535-D Difficult Sudoku Solution #3534-D 981 246375 423759681 56731 8924 1 45627839 836491 257 79258341 6 21 8965743 6741 32598 3598741 62 )! 1! 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