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September 21, 2004
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New, highi-tech communication technology in place, but is it working?

San Francisco Bay Area supplied with black boxes, but many of the hi-tech communication devices aren't tested.

By Ian Hoffman
Tri-Valley Herald

BAY AREA - In a terrorist attack, rescuers can expect overloaded radio channels and overwhelmed dispatchers. Increasingly, they are relying on black boxes that can patch together the voices of commanders across city and county lines.

These boxes have proved effective in drills held at the Golden Gate Bridge and in Contra Costa County and in Los Angeles. They sell for a fraction of the cost of new radio systems and have been heavily endorsed by the federal government.

But experts say the devices come with sharp limitations that local agencies are starting to appreciate.

The black boxes work by patching together audio signals from different radios and cell phones that otherwise couldn''t talk to each other. In simplest terms, it''s akin to feeding the sound from each radio or phone into the microphones of the other radios and phones.

The hands-down California best-seller among these magical devices is the ACU-1000, made by Raytheon JPS Communications, thanks in part to a glowing endorsement from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

California governments bought more than 100 of them, at $11,000 to $40,000 apiece. A sales representative figures each of the 58 counties bought at least one. The California Highway Patrol bought 50, San Francisco has three, Contra Costa County has 10, and Alameda County is buying five.

But experts say they''re not sure agencies always knew what they were buying.

"It has its usefulness, and it has its problems," said Glenn Nash, frequency coordinator for California''s state radio systems and a former president of the national Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials. "It currently has a lot of hype as being the right tool for everything, but it''s not."

The box only works in places where plugged-in agencies have overlapping radio coverage. It requires an experienced radio engineer and a careful plan for linking radio systems together, said John Powell, a 32-year veteran of Bay Area law-enforcement communications and part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security''s RAPIDCOM project to linked incident commanders by radio within an hour of a disaster.

Tying radios together on the fly in a major emergency, Powell said, is "a disaster waiting to happen." Absent a plan, powering up two or more ACU-1000s can snarl multiple frequencies in the region.

Los Angeles region officials test their network of ACU-1000s twice a week to ensure smooth talking in a crisis. In contrast, a Bay Area agency's "black box" may still be bubble-wrapped in a shipping box.

Contra Costa County is an exception. Its patches wove together state and local radios on multiple exercises, starting with an anti-war protest at ChevronTexaco headquarters in San Ramon.

"Short of giving everyone a new radio, it's the only way to do it," said Chris Suter, deputy chief of San Ramon Valley Fire Department. "It's very viable for an interim solution and very economical. But long term, we need more."

Oakland, the first Bay Area city to buy a black box, is a different story. One of its devices resides at the city''s combination fire dispatch and emergency operations center. But recently a top city communications official could not find evidence of the machine on the central dispatch computer. The device's own computer screen showed no radios yet had been programmed into it, and the black box itself, situated in a storage room on a separate floor, appeared not to have any radios plugged into it.

Powell suspects most audio patches in California are in the same shape.

"I would say it's not unusual to have these things sitting out there still in the shipping box, or it's installed and nobody''s got any radios hooked up to it or they don''t have anyone trained," Powell said. "I would guess that one in 10 are properly coordinated. Somebody needs to figure out how these things are going to be used."

In the Bay Area, that's Mike Griffin, assistant chief of law enforcement for the governor's Office of Emergency Services.

"He's been a real kick-starter," said Jim Gobel, a senior communications official in San Francisco. "He's the one who said ''let''s get something under our belt, let's get an accomplishment.''"

Griffin, working out of a regional headquarters in Oakland, made sure two audio patches in the Bay Area really count.

One ACU-1000 connects the half-dozen agencies responding to a disaster on the Golden Gate Bridge. It is a linchpin of the most refined disaster communications plan in the Bay Area.

A second sits in a state emergency services truck parked in San Francisco and poised for hauling to a major attack or disaster. At present, it is the best hope for common communications in the city and its immediate environs.

"The terrorists aren't going to wait and this is the only rational way to tie these systems together," said David Boyd, deputy director of the Department of Homeland Security''s interoperable communications program.

Griffin sees the state's truck in San Francisco and the device inside as the first of several for the North, East and South Bay.

It's only an interim measure, he said, but "I consider it the first real step toward interoperability in the Bay Area."

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