Fix the communications Babel

The Bay Area received both good and bad news about its public communications capability on the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. However, the long-awaited good news could save thousands of lives and millions of dollars in property damage during our next natural or man-made regional emergency.

Every year when the federal Department of Homeland Security distributed funding to state and local governments, The Examiner urged all Bay Area jurisdictions to stop fighting each other and spend the region’s allocation on establishing a universal single-frequency emergency communications system for all our police, fire, hospital and transit agencies.

The real need for this has been demonstrated at least twice in contemporary Bay Area emergencies. During the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the 1991 East Bay hillside fire, an incompatible patchwork of radio equipment seriously interfered with interagency coordination of first-responder efforts.

But on Sept. 11, the mayors of San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland plus public safety officials from San Mateo and four other counties got together on Treasure Island to announce that a $200 million project is under way to make the Bay Area the first metropolitan region in America where emergency personnel from all agencies can talk to each other on a common radio frequency during major disasters.

Naturally such a large project requires substantial time and money. Preliminary estimate is that two years are needed for putting the universal frequency into effect. To date, Homeland Security has granted $32.5 million for the job. Officials at the Treasure Island event expressed confidence that additional funding sources are lined up, although no details were announced.

Still, at least the dozens of Bay Area emergency response authorities are finally working together on the vital link, so this is a major first step that should never be derailed by interagency rivalries.

Now if only Muni could get on track with a timely update of its outmoded 1979 computer communications center, which apparently is a prime cause of delays such as the citywide meltdown during the debut of the T-Third metro line. An Examiner story Wednesday revealed that Muni’s central-control facility is only kept operational by constant cannibalizing of obsolete hardware.

A 1999 report warned of the ruinous inadequacy of Muni’s computers to handle 700,000 daily passengers on 1,000 buses and trolleys. Yet today’s top Muni managers have no record of why nothing was done; and replacing the hardware now will cost nearly 20 times as much as the original $17 million estimate.

Obviously it is not easy to find transportation funding for anything not directly involved in putting more vehicles, drivers and mechanics on the job. But a forward-thinking overhaul of Muni operations is under way, and upgrading the dispatch computers should be a primary consideration.

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