Where's the Fire?
Communications Bond Proposal Is No Emergency
Boondoggle alert! Would you vote to fund the following bond proposition? "The issuance of $38,000,000 of tax supported general obligation bonds for purchasing, acquiring, and installing emergency service equipment." With early voting for the May 3 city election in full swing, many already have. After all -- "emergency service equipment" -- who could be opposed to that? Apparently nobody, since some of the city's most reliable watchdogs -- Linda Curtis of Priorities First!, councilmember Daryl Slusher, and Tom "Smitty" Smith of Public Citizen -- have raised nary a peep of protest about the huge expenditure known as Proposition 1. It seems that between the hubbub of the council elections gearing up, and the legislative session coming to a full boil, everyone, including the press, pretty much has their hands full. Although the ballot wording ambiguously asks for "emergency equipment," in fact, the bond issue will fund a brand spanking new radio communications system for all city departments, and city officials are hoping to guilt trip the public into supporting the changeover by framing it as a dire necessity.
The city's Information Systems department absolutely cannot wait to get started spending taxpayer dollars on their ambitious plans. Austin's public safety agencies -- Police, Fire, and EMS -- complain that their current UHF radio equipment is outdated and would need to be replaced soon in any case. Prop. 1's $38 million will allow all city departments, from garbage trucks to utility meter readers, to be connected through an "800 trunking" system -- a single radio channel used by mobile units. (To connect "potential partners" within Travis County, including the city, the county, Austin Community College, the University of Texas, the cities of Pflugerville and West Lake Hills, the Travis County Sheriff's Department, AISD, and the Texas House of Representatives and Legislative Council into the "800 trunking" radio system will cost approximately $62 million. This $38 million represents the City of Austin's projected share of the project).
But Information Systems isn't stopping there? The department eventually plans to spend another $58 million on a comprehensive communication system for the city known as 911 RDMT (Radio, Dispatch, Mobile data, Transportation management), which would include the Prop.1 improvements, but would also expand the city's "interoperability" to make radio communication possible, as well as funding a Geographic Information System (GIS), a new 911 network, and a $36 million "Combination Center" to integrate communication between the Texas Department of Transportation and local authorities.
Danny Hobby, assistant director of Information Systems, publicly bills Prop. 1 as the first step towards this "interoperability" plan, but admits that the program to connect city departments is the only one currently in the works. "I'm not saying any other entity is committed, although the city of Austin will still build a trunking system with this money, regardless," says Hobby.
Supporters argue that because trunking allows a shared use of bandwidth, as opposed to the current system which uses separate bandwidths for each department, it is naturally the wave of the future. "If the dog catcher has his own frequency that he uses five minutes a day and the police have five frequencies that are packed 24 hours a day, does that make sense?" argues David Wye, technology advisor in the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau of the FCC. Wye says that trunking, which pools agencies onto one frequency utilizing telephone-style switching to accommodate the increased traffic, is both the most efficient engineering solution, and the most cost-effective. If several agencies decide to join together to share bandwidth, and therefore resources, public costs could decrease. Under the current system each agency purchases their own radio towers and dispatching center, whereas trunking would allow them to share these facilities. Information Systems seems to believe that if they build the infrastructure, the agencies will come, but without any other agencies committed, Prop. 1 could mean spending $38 million on an infrastructure which only the City of Austin will ever use. Furthermore, even if all the agencies sign on, coordinating the administration of 10 such different organizations promises to be a nightmare.
With so much money at stake, one wonders if none of the usual watchdogs have bothered to look into the the issues because of the complexity of the technology, or merely because of squeamishness about attacking money slated for police and firefighters. "It's a health and public safety issue, and it's real hard to find a leg to stand on to oppose those," explains councilmember Jackie Goodman's aide, Susan Sheffield. Indeed, there could be definite, obvious advantages to facilitating faster communication between public safety officials. But the majority of the city departments connected will, in fact, be those that oversee the mundane details of the city's administration, not emergencies. And while there is a necessity for meter readers to communicate with their offices while in the field, the existing UHF system or even cellular phones could easily accommodate that need.
When pressed for an example of how this sytem will be a necessity during emergencies, Wye could only give the most extreme scenario: "After the Oklahoma City bombing there were huge problems getting all the different agencies to talk to each other."
This is not to say there isn't reason to address the issue of radio communication over the next several years. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is in the process of splitting the UHF radio bandwidths currently used by most municipalities for voice communications in their public safety authorities. "It's not a question of `if [Prop .1] fails we simply live with what we've got.' There's got to be changes made," insists Hobby. However, Hobby is operating under a misconception common even among telecommunications professionals -- that the FCC band-splitting will require new equipment. "Public safety institutions are not required to buy new equipment," FCC tech advisor Wye emphasizes. "They could use their equipment for 100 years, but if they want to buy new radios, those have to be [built on the new standard]."
In addition, trunking systems require a greater initial investment than UHF systems, because of the need to build new infrastructure. Hobby argues that the city will be better off in the long run springing for the newer system instead of building onto the old one. Lief Erickson, director of the Communications Management Division of the Houston Police, agrees that newer is better. You can keep the old UHF system as long as you need to, but there's a lot to be said for a new system because it accomplishes everything at once," he says.
But Dallas officials, who came to that same conclusion several years ago, were horrified when the new system turned out to be a disaster. Dallas opted to rip out its brand new trunking system 18 months ago and went back to old reliable UHF. Roger Kuean, interim Assistant Director of that city's Equipment, Communication and Information Services department, was only willing to confirm that Dallas and their equipment vendor "came to a mutual decision to remove the system," but refused to comment on what went wrong. However, Houston's Erickson describes Dallas' experience as a "horror story" which developed out of poor initial engineering plans.
Houston itself uses an older version of 800 trunking to connect city departments, but still operates separate UHF channels for fire, police, and EMS -- a setup which Erickson says he does not anticipate Houston looking to change for at least five more years. This, despite the assertion by Scott Swearengin, director of Austin's Emergency Management Operations, that "most of the major communities in Texas already are on an 800 system." Think again: Ft. Worth is the only major city which has a system similar to the one proposed by 911 RDMT. Ft. Worth changed over to trunking about four years ago and brought 10 other agencies across Tarrant County with them, at a cost of $11 million -- at least $50 million less than the price tag on Austin's plan which would accomplish the same goals.
Austin's higher costs could be due, in part, to the fact that 800 frequencies are shorter than UHF frequencies, meaning that concessions will have to be made for Austin's hilly terrain which would not have been an issue in Fort Worth. The other advantage Fort Worth had was the backing and cooperation of agencies throughout Tarrant County. What's Austin got? Money to spare, obviously.
"Council Watch" will return next week, reporting on the meeting of April 24