The day begins like any other in beautiful Silicon Valley: children are on their way to school, commuters are stuck in traffic, etc. Our carefree existence then suddenly gives way to a terrorist attack at a high-profile technology company. People are killed, injured, power is out, phone service is down, and a pursuit is underway for those who have set out to harm us. Police and fire departments across the region and in neighboring counties attempt to communicate and provide mutual aid, as an “all hands on deck” approach is required to tackle the catastrophic situation as it unfolds.
But in this scenario, one of the main issues is that there is no way to for all personnel to effectively communicate with other agencies in real time. This is the problem that the Silicon Valley Regional Interoperability Authority (SVRIA) is currently trying to solve. SVRIA was formed in 2010, and its exists to identify, coordinate and implement communication interoperability solutions. The goal is to seamlessly integrate voice and data communications between all first responders for critical incidents, disaster response and recovery.
The SVRIA board of directors is comprised of elected officials throughout the county, including our Sheriff Laurie Smith. I have been a board member of SVRIA since its inception and have found the proceedings to be extremely technical. I also believe that most residents are unaware of the shortcomings inherent in our current communication technology. Even in a post 9/11 environment, public safety departments still lack the technology to have multiple conversations in a secure, encrypted format. The current countywide system for public safety only allows one unsecure—not encrypted—conversation and hand-held radio coverage is limited.
In the case of a major earthquake, cities within Santa Clara County cannot connect with other Bay Area counties in an optimized manner, because those counties use different technology. Santa Clara County would essentially be on its own, but it would also be internally divided by cities based on communication platforms.
So this begs the question: Why, in Silicon Valley of all places, do we not have a more effective system in place?
One reason is that we have separate jurisdictions, each of which made investments in technology at different points of time and with different objectives in mind. The end result is that we have roughly a dozen distinct legacy systems in place across the geographic span of the county.
The other reason is cost. The price tag for the latest standards-based technology and maintainable solution has been estimated at $250 million. This includes building out dozens of sites that transmit signals and equipping thousands of our first responders and their vehicles with devices that receive these signals.
One method to fund such a proposal would entail a ballot measure to raise taxes to cover the cost. Preliminary estimates put this parcel tax at $29 per parcel for 20 years. Another option is for each city to go it alone, which could lead to further systemic incompatibility and the inability for cities within our county to communicate. In other words, we could potentially end up right back where we started.
Polling data suggests support for this parcel tax at the simple majority level, but not enough to clear the two-thirds threshold necessary. I cannot envision a scenario where this new tax would pass without the strong and visible public support of all the police and fire chiefs from every city in the county. In addition to the support of public safety leadership, I would also call upon the high-tech community to lend their public support and financial backing for passage of such a ballot measure.
I realize this may not be the most exciting or high-profile issue to bring to the table. However, I think it is my responsibility as an elected official to keep residents apprised of the documented shortcomings in our emergency preparedness technology. Voters may potentially see this item on the ballot in 2014, along with a general-purpose sales tax, library parcel tax and road paving tax. Since communication technology is comparatively “intangible” when compared to potholes, for example, it may not be a top priority for voters. But it only takes one catastrophic event to bring this topic front and center in the minds of voters, so maybe they will take this factor into consideration.
Pierluigi Oliverio is a councilmember for San Jose’s District 6.