911 system failures prompt emergency declaration and spending

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – As Humboldt County works to fix a 911 communication system that is “rapidly breaking down,” more work needs to be done than expected and paying for it has been approved under an emergency resolution.

​The worrying failures of the county’s 911 communications infrastructure prompted an emergency declaration at the October 27 Board of Supervisors meeting.

​According to a written staff report, “Over the past year, the county has experienced dramatic failures of the radio infrastructure causing sheriff deputies and first responders to be without radio communications.”

​After the county commissioned a study of the situation two years ago and developed a plan to correct it, the Motorola company was contracted to fix the system. Sheriff Billy Honsal said that “money was aside” to fund the overhaul, which includes rehab of eight transmission and reception sites. ​

​The plan set forth a project to “do what was necessary, as we knew at the time, to fix these repeater sites so we could have a radio system with built-in redundancy and also the ability to transmit countywide,” Honsal said.

​Now that Motorola has begun its work, “We have found that there are other things that have gone wrong with our radio system,” he continued.  

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​With the emergency spending, the cost of the $5.5 million project will increase by nearly $500,000 plus $175,000 for new mobile radio infrastructure and consultant’s fees.

​The county has formed a group to work with Motorola on the project and its leader, Sheriff’s Capt. Bryan Quenell, said the mobile radio gear will help with “some of the coding requirements that are now upon us.”

​He summed up the system’s problems. “We’ve reached a point where the radio system is unreliable,” he said, adding that the Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have any radio communication in the Shelter Cove or Orleans areas.

​The communication blackout is widespread on occasion. 

“Within the last couple weeks, our radio system has gone down on more than one occasion for long periods of time which means there’s no communication from our 911 center to the units in the field,” Quenell said. “Which is obviously a huge public safety concern and an officer safety concern for us.”

​Supervisor Mike Wilson described the new expense as a “significant change order” but one that’s focused on essential infrastructure. Quenell said the work that’s being paid for “gets us through the upgrades and the implementation of the new radio system.”

​Supervisor Steve Madrone noted that the added cost will be covered through the county’s General Fund but Honsal said there’s potential to use Measure Z funding if this year’s allotments aren’t completely spent.

​Use of asset forfeiture money was also discussed but Honsal said that pool of money has seen a “significant decrease” in the last two years.

​Although supervisors described the cost change as significant, they agreed that the project addresses an emergency situation.

​It affects fire, medical emergency responders and the county’s roads division as well. Board Chair Estelle Fennell emphasized the project’s immediate need.

“Looking at the outlying areas that very often need your help, even in cases like wildfires or storms not to mention cases involving violence, it’s really, really important for that connectivity to happen,” she said. “This is a major public safety issue.”

​Supervisors unanimously approved the contract change order and the emergency declaration, which allows the county to go ahead with the added work without going through a competitive bidding process.

Also approved was the emergency resolution, which states that the 911 communication system failures are “sudden, unexpected, and pose a clear and imminent danger requiring immediate action to prevent the loss or impairment of life, health, property, or essential public services.”


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