First-responder radio towers being replaced
By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Robbie Dingeman
A new city analysis shows eight of 24 city radio communications towers must be replaced as part of a $22.5 million project to update the vital network that emergency responders rely on each day.
Nearly a year into the effort to upgrade the O'ahu emergency system, city information technology director Gordon Bruce said the assessment shows where the weak links are. The city has begun replacing the towers, which continue to operate despite their condition, on a schedule of two to three new towers a year.
The towers make up a critical link in the city's communications network, enabling police, fire and emergency medical services crews to communicate within each agency, and increasingly to use the technology to talk directly to one another.
While the city is spending money to repair the deteriorating towers, workers also have been updating radio technology.
The updates have allowed the city to bridge a critical gap that had kept the police and fire departments from communicating directly.
Honolulu Police Capt. Mike Correa said the direct link saves time and has the potential to save lives when every second counts.
"It will definitely increase efficiency and speed," Correa said.
As a result of the work, Ho-nolulu is ahead of many cities in what's called "interoperability," Bruce said.
Mayor Mufi Hannemann has told Bruce to make the communications update a top priority after realizing last year that some of the metal towers holding the key equipment were crumbling.
He said the challenge is to budget the money before a major failure can occur, such as happened in March when 48 million gallons of sewage spilled in Waikiki. The cause was a ruptured pipe that had been flagged as potential trouble years before.
"It's just unconscionable that we let it get the way that it has without repairing it," Hannemann said.
Bruce estimates that the eight worst towers will be replaced within three years — by 2009 — and another five of the most critical towers repaired by then as well. Towers set for replacement include those in Aliamanu, Kailua, Ka'a'awa, Mokule'ia, Wai'anae, Waimanalo and near Kawela Bay.
Bruce said other towers also need work but consultants are analyzing whether some can be repaired or shored up using such techniques as encasing supports in concrete.
"It takes time; we can't do it overnight," Hannemann said. But both the mayor and Bruce point to some of the work already done, including a new tower nearing completion in a joint project with the state above Hawai'i Kai.
The new steel tower sits just below the rusty tower it is replacing. High on wind-swept Koko Head, the old tower's metal feet look like rust sandwiches, with chunks of metal littering the ground and rust bubbling through various supports.
Bruce said the old tower still has the live equipment but the new one will take over upon completion and after all the gear is shifted over.
He said the new structures will be built to withstand a Category 4 hurricane. If some towers are disabled, Bruce said, the signals can be bounced between the others to bypass the problem area. And a fiber-optic system provides emergency backup capability, he said.
Bruce said a key communications link was made early this year when the Fire Department converted to the 800 MHz communications system that police had begun using several years ago. Even though they routinely operate on separate frequencies, being on the same system allows them to tune in to the same frequency and communicate directly.
Honolulu Police Capt. Frank Fujii said much of the work on better communications came in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. In New York City's World Trade Center towers, Fujii said, "police couldn't tell firefighters to get out of the building."
Locally, police and fire both responded to a major landslide at Sacred Falls in 1999 without being able to communicate directly.
"We could be at a scene, even within sight of each other, and we couldn't talk to each other," Correa said. "Now we can actually speak to each other and to other agencies."
Honolulu emergency services workers now are equipped with two sets of radios — those they use to communicate with each other and additional 800 MHz radios that can tune in to communicate with other city agencies.
Assistant Honolulu Fire Chief Charles Wassman said the Fire Department implemented the new system at the beginning of the year and it has already proved helpful. "We've had more than one incident where it's been beneficial," Wassman said.
For example, fire rescue crews were on the ground early this year searching for lost hikers as it grew dark.
Before night fell, crews in a truck near Mokule'ia contacted the police helicopter directly and the chopper picked up the search crews and found the hikers, he said.
Wassman said the technology works by allowing direct access when necessary but leaving normal operations on their separate systems.
"Their talk groups are isolated from our talk groups," he said. "But we have talk groups that everybody can share."
Wassman said he has seen a lot of progress in the past two years in interagency communication.
"I think we're doing the best we can," he said. "I feel that we put in a lot of time and effort. At the end of the year we'll be getting a scorecard."
But Wassman said interagency communications exercises like the one held Friday help to work out other issues that are just as important. The exercise involved agencies including police, fire, EMS and FBI.
"It's not so much a technical problem as a human dynamics problem," he said.
The key, he said, is having the people coordinating and collaborating because "they all have their own organizations, structures and rules."
Bruce said he also found some simple solutions helped keep the communications equipment in better shape. When he first visited some of the sites, he found them so overgrown with weeds that "you couldn't open the door to get into the building."
He said a local landscaping company that was paid $6,000 for the first year has since kept the weeds at bay.
Reach Robbie Dingeman at firstname.lastname@example.org.