Keeping the City of Angels safe: An inside look at the L.A. Regional Tactical Communications System
By Capt. Eddie Reyes
In my last column I highlighted the South Carolina State Interoperability Project, commonly known as the “Palmetto 800 Trunked Radio Network and I received lots of positive feedback from some of the readers that follow this column. I especially want to thank the fine folks from South Carolina who contacted me as well as a Sheriff’s Deputy from Des Moines, IA. So I thought I would try my luck again this month and take readers across the country, literally, to the Los Angeles region and focus on their communications and interoperability solutions.
As you can imagine, the Los Angeles region is certainly no stranger to large public safety events, whether they are preplanned, natural or criminal in nature. Events like the devastating wild fires we constantly see on our televisions, the riots in Watts or the massive preparation for the State Funeral honoring President Ronald Wilson Reagan on June 11th, 2004.
Los Angeles, the second largest city in the United States with a population of just below four million people, also continues to be the fastest growing major US city. The county is composed of 4,000 square miles of various terrains from 90 feet below sea level at the coastline to 10,000 feet above in the mountains.
Did you know that California is the US state with the largest number of cities with more than 100,000 people? The Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana area alone has an estimated 12.8 million people living and working there. (www.citymayors.com)
It’s no wonder the role of public safety first-responders in the Los Angeles region is constantly changing and the demands on public safety personnel are becoming more diverse and complex. We agree by now and it is no secret that the absence of communications interoperability between agencies in any region is directly related to the older or highly proprietary radio systems that are utilized in existing public safety communications, the disparate frequencies used by various agencies and/or the lack of effective governance. Lack of funding and the unavailability of massive amounts of spectrum have prevented the development of a nationwide, fully interoperable, public safety communications system.
Most public safety agencies today are required to utilize their legacy systems up to a decade, sometimes two, past the design life cycle. Notwithstanding these difficulties, the communities we serve and the duties we perform demand that our first-line responders have the ability to communicate across many different communication platforms and jurisdictional lines. A lack of interoperability within any region can be detrimental to any coordinated emergency response, whether large scale or routine in nature.
In order to respond to this growing need for public safety, the Los Angeles Public Safety Community created the Los Angeles Regional Tactical Communications System (LARTCS). It is governed by a Committee, a consortium of local, state, and federal public safety entities with the common goal of establishing interoperable public safety communications. LARTCS tactical communications is managed by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department as the lead agency for the program.
The mission of the Los Angeles Regional Tactical Communications System is to enhance the safety of the citizens of Southern California by providing the highest degree of operational communications and interoperability among the public safety agencies of Los Angeles County and the five adjacent counties and to do so in the most efficient and cost effective manner possible.
The LARTC concept is an evolution of ideas and concepts meant to solve tactical interoperability for first responders. Like most other areas of the nation, Los Angeles County lacked sufficient spectrum, had disparate independent radio systems, and was spread across four different radio bands. In 2000, it appeared technologically impossible for public safety agencies to talk in real time.
Los Angeles County has 52 law enforcement agencies and 35 fire departments or districts. Add to this federal, state, and other agencies that would respond to an emergency or disaster and you have a real challenge when it comes to coordinating effective public safety communications. Consideration was given to the National Guard, Coast Guard, and other military branches. All of these agencies were spread across the UHF, VHF, 800, and HF bands, therefore, no single radio or system could speak to all of the agencies.
Some of the local agencies include:
• Alhambra Police Department
The concept of interoperability was pushed forward by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in late 2000. Slowly, other agencies expressed interest and eventually the LARTCS Executive Committee was formed. Today it is an open committee with nine voting members. These members include the:
• Los Angeles Area Fire Chiefs Association, which currently serves as the Vice Chair
• Los Angeles County Chiefs of Police Association
• Los Angeles County Fire Department
• Los Angeles Police Department
• Los Angels City Fire Department
• United States Secret Service, which serves representing all Federal agencies
• California Highway Patrol, representing all State agencies
• Los Angeles County Health Department
The committee produced a concept of gateways and shared channels to solve the interoperability problem. These solutions were meant as an interim solution that would be replaced if a standards-based single platform system was ever built. Upon the completion of a single platform, the LARTC concept would serve to connect non-participating agencies, as well as State and Federal responders. The system was constructed using existing infrastructures and implementing new patching technology thereby minimizing costs.
Public safety agencies in the Los Angeles region are connected to the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Communications Center located in East Los Angeles through the use of Raytheon – JPS Communications ACU-1000 gateways. This site has coverage that serves the San Fernando Valley, San Gabriel Valley, Los Angeles Basin, ports, coastal waters and most of Orange County. Virtually any agency operating in these areas can be connected to any other agency from this location.
A mobile application known as the Interoperability Communications Unit (ICU) is able to provide the same connections through the use of mobile and portable gateways. This vehicle is on-call around the clock and has deployed for several large scale events. Mobile and portable gateways are a real advantage because the object of any long term event is to clear significant radio traffic from a fixed gateway in preparation for the next event. Most regions that have robust interoperability solutions like LARTCS, will activate a fixed gateway during the first few hours of a major event but will transfer communications and interoperability operations to a mobile or portable gateway as communications leaders (COML) arrive on the scene.
Additionally, hard wire connections currently exist between the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Communications Center, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. A similar link exists to the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department through the Claremont Police Department. These links permit console patching for interagency communications at the portable radio end user. As you can see from this complex mix-and-match of different interoperability solutions, human interoperability is the key to success.
Twice a week, a testing and training exercise is conducted to insure that all participating agencies are able and know how to make the connection to the Sheriff’s Communications Center.
Gateways allow agencies to use their existing equipment and infrastructure with expansion capability at a fraction of the cost compared to rebuilding an entire radio system.
The LARTC plan provides for an infrastructure build-out to provide assigned repeated channels in the UHF, VHF, and 800 bands. Funding has been provided by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for this construction. These frequencies will be repeated throughout the region and will always be available for public safety communications. They will permit instant communications between agencies on different frequency bands as they will always be linked at the gateways. These links may be removed or modified by the Sheriff’s Communications Center to meet specific incident needs. Construction should conclude by the end of calendar 2007.
The public safety agencies of the Los Angeles region have established a model for working together to achieve better interoperability. LARTCS has made tremendous strides post September 11th to accomplish a more coordinated response. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department alone operates on approximately 68 radio channels. Each of the surrounding agencies has their own radio system, some with very little compatibility for interoperability.
Prior to this level of interoperability, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department considered a quote to revamp its’ 17 year old communications system. The quote exceeded $500 million, which was unfeasible for any public safety agency. At that time, Captain Sedita (now Commander Sedita) gathered interoperability information from the United States Department of Justice’s Public Safety Wireless Network (PSWN) and the National Institute of Justice’s AGILE program (now the CommTech Program). Here he learned about different interoperability technologies and solutions that were much more cost effective.
The real advantage with the awesome interoperability technologies and solutions that are available today is that no one single agency has to replace any of its infrastructure and first responders can continue working with radios they are familiar and comfortable with. Ask any first responder about change, especially when it comes to their communications equipment, and you will get an ear-full!
LARTCS recognized from the beginning that there is a lot to do when implementing an interoperability solution of such a grand scale. Buy in is not easy when you consider this many agencies, therefore the LARTCS Committee had to work real hard to reach agreements in a cooperative manner, regardless of disciplines and jurisdictional boundaries.
Nevertheless, LARTCS convened together to develop the necessary governance and training, involving all parties, and focusing on standardized protocols for use during the deployment of the system. Basic standardized protocols, such as speaking in plain English anytime connections are made between two different agencies.
The ultimate value of LARTCS is that there is no cost to any agency for participation in the system and there is no single ownership, it is a partnership made possible through the firm commitment and true cooperation of all the public safety agencies participating in the Los Angeles region.
After all, LARTCS’s Motto is “We Work Together, Let’s Talk Together”
In conclusion, keeping the City of Angles is no easy task. While the estimated 12.8 million people who live and work in the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana sleep at night, there is comfort knowing that communications and interoperability is no longer an issue in this area.
This region has done what most others have done who are busting at the seams with antiquated radio equipment – instead of replacing it all in order to talk with their neighbors on who are on disparate radio frequencies, they have made a pact to work past this issue in the most cost effective manner possible.
But all of this could not have been possible but if not for the hard work of obtaining buy in from the 52 law enforcement agencies and 35 fire departments or districts in the region. Their nine member Executive Committee has been entrusted with ensuring that communications and interoperability is not an issue during routine events like the car chases we always witness coming from California to the state wild fires that sweep through cities and counties with no regard for boundaries.
Thank you LARTCS for an outstanding job with this system!
For additional information, contact:
Commander Robert Sedita
Lieutenant Stephen Webb
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