In Case of Emergency, Law Enforcement Communications Options Limited

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.


  1. PO-

    How about bringing the standard of public safety in San Jose before we worry about the bigger picture of taking care of the whole Bay Area?  I find it appalling that you now are so supportive of law enforcement and the fire department after you’ve supported cuts for so long.

  2. Hopefully the author will not be a councilmember for much longer!  This is yet another example of how out of touch the people who run this city are!  Crime is rampant; we are at a 20 year high for both violent crime and property crimes.  I don’t walk in my neighborhood anymore after dark.  We worry about leaving our homes unattended.  Cops are abandoning SJPD left and right.  It takes hours for a cop in San Jose to respond to a crime if they even respond at all. 

    And councilmember Oliverio writes about taxes for improving communications in the event of earthquake.  Time to pull your head out of the sand sir!

  3. We are very much what others think of us. The reception our observations meet with gives us courage to proceed, or damps our efforts.

    Somebody get this guy ANOTHER wet blanket.

  4. PO,

    Got to love you consistency if nothing else.

    Let me run a few things by you.

    1. “I have been a board member of SVRIA since its inception and have found the proceedings to be extremely technical.”  I bet you are confused but we already knew that.

    2.  “public safety departments still lack the technology”.  Why is that, Because Chuck and his posse have gutted the departments and cut their budgets so much they can’t even open a vacant 92 million dollar sub station built on our dime. 

    3. “The other reason is cost. The price tag for the latest standards-based technology and maintainable solution has been estimated at $250 million.  Wait for it here it comes:

    “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.”  The ole lets raise taxes again, it will only be for twenty years.  And a tax to keep our very own public safety officers.  And a tax to fix the roads.  And a tax to fix all.  On and on and on.

    Please Enough I propose a tax to change our current administration.

    God help us all.

    • Rob,
      Be prepared. PO loves technology. His next article will probably be on inventing a Robo Cop/Firefighter so the City won’t have to pay it, or worry about its pension….grin

  5. Before we go throwing money at this problem, I’d like to know if this a new problem, or have we had this problem since the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake?  Are things better, about the same or worse than they were twentysomething years ago?  What about all the money for things like this from the Department of Homeland Security?  Did any of that get spent on this problem, and if so, what was the outcome?

    I recall a recent communications failure in Oakland with a NEW system that they installed in 2011.

    Somehow you have to wonder if this is one of those projects like the one to put an “emergency” seaport in Alviso.  There are always “good” reasons to do dumb things.  Especially when it comes to the government.

  6. P.O.

    I have to admit that I just don’t “get it.” We don’t have enough money to staff our PD, or our Fire Dept., but you want us to vote on a new technology that is supposed to help with communication between first responders. That makes no sense to me. Next, I fear you will be suggesting that we fill first responders positions with robots to avoid paying them! 

    Secondly, technology might be a great in some areas, but it seems to have taken over jobs that only human beings should fill. We have become way too dependent on computers, and technology to the point that the world stops when computers go down!

    It has also become a new vocation for hackers. Do you want to talk about the millions of dollars these new criminals are costing us, or will cost us when we continue to become dependent on computer systems? What will you do when they hack into this new system? What living breathing human beings are assigned to overseeing this new crime venue? 

    When phone lines, radio, and TV communications go down, what source of communications do we have? Is there any kind of alarm system in place? Is the City training citizens what do when there are no first responders available to them?

    PO, despite all your good intentions, and attempts to “think out of the box” you need to address the most important issue, and that is bringing our PD and FD up to staffing levels that will appropriately serve over 1 million people.

    Until then, put a tax on the ballot to do just that. When people see it, they will vote YES on it, because we all know crime is out of control, and that we need more cops and firefighters, not new fangled gadgets!

  7. The ability for all personnel to communicate is no guarantee that effective communication will result. Often times unfettered communication, like excess personnel, results in a wasteful and confusing cluster-####. That said, I understand the allure of a program purported to be essential to solving terrifying, albeit hypothetical problems, especially to politicians who’ve done so dismal a job of providing basic services to their highly-taxed constituents. The philosophy behind this costly, state-of-the-art communication system brings to mind that which fitted SJPD beat cars with a high-tech stolen vehicle identification system, while turning a blind eye to the fact that those beat cars are seldom on patrol, or used to do anything but race from call to call.

    My reading of the councilman’s post convinces me of only two things: some industry has something to sell, and some politicians think they can benefit from getting the taxpayers to buy it.

  8. Six month period…..SJPD…900 applicants……..SFPD…4000+ applicants…….PLO, why is that?  Can’t wait for the answer……Stay crappy Shark City

  9. Actions speak louder than words. 

    Wasn’t it the City of San Jose under your Councilmembership who laid off cops for the first time, even through the Great Depression.  Was it not San Jose, who last year passed on a Federal grant to fund additional Police Officers?  When Rufus was asked what would happen if Measure B failed in the Courts, didn’t he say, “We go back to layoffs and pay cuts.”

    If you, our elected leaders can’t put OUR money to good use (2/3’s is not allocated to General Fund)… Why would we give you more?!?  Priorities, Pier, priorities.  Public safety, water, sewers.  Not libraries, swimming pools, Hayes Mansions, golf courses, Airport remodels or low-income housing.  Less than 1,000 first responders for a City of 1,000,000 can’t do much, regardless of well they can communicate.  FACT.

    Our patience with your prioriization is nearly exhausted.

  10. Ah ! The voice of the Uniformed and Uneducated . Your cute little story needs to begin by letting people know , That San Jose would be “up a creek without a Paddle” . You see , you , the Mayor & crew have decimated our public safety . Both P.D. & F.D. would be insanely overwelmed almost instantaneously . No help would be forthcoming from other agencies because they will be dealing with their own Issues . Off Duty P.D.& F.D. will take care of their own Families first , before ever consider coming to work( if at all) . your reference to “Mutual Aid ” is laughable , it simply will not happen. People have long memories . many times San Jose is asked for assistance and does NOT/Can Not respond because our resources have been Severely Cut ( By Mayor and Council). Mutual Aid is a two way street , not a one way and we have not been holding up our end . Communications would be a very big problem , but guess what ? this has been a topic of conversation for years. And Guess what again ? San Jose has always wanted to do their own thing , NOT a county thing . I would never support a tax for this program because you ,this Mayor and Council have shown this city that you not only can not manage this city , BUT have severely mismanaged our resources . hahahahahaahhahaha ! you seriously think you can get P.D.& F.D. to back this plan after the way this mayor , council, and city have treated them ? yeah good luck with that .

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