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Back to Archives | Back to June 2008 Contents 

Countywide Interoperable Radio Network Project: Placer County, California

By Clark Moots, Director of Administrative Services; and Mike Fitch, Information Officer, Placer County, Auburn, California Countywide Interoperable Radio Network Project, Placer County, California

lacer County, California, has developed a comprehensive step-by-step approach for deploying a state-of-the-art wireless public safety communication system, despite the many budget constraints facing local governments. The county’s goal is to create an integrated, efficient regional network that takes advantage of the latest generation of trunked and digital radios. A critical goal is allowing local, state, and federal law enforcement and other agencies to communicate with each other easily and quickly.

The county’s approach relies on cooperation with many partner agencies, including the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS). The COPS grant program has become an invaluable ally in the county’s efforts to fund the project. “Our success to date is largely due to the high level of collaboration we have had with our public safety partners. It has been this culture of cooperation that has assisted our efforts at the federal level to secure funds,” said Placer County sheriff Edward N. Bonner.

Placer County has largely completed the first two phases of its Countywide Interoperable Radio Network Project and has now begun the final phase.

The issue is of critical importance to Placer County, one of the fastest-growing counties in California. The county covers a geographically diverse area that includes valley cities northeast of Sacramento, the Sierra Nevada foothills, and the northwest corner of Lake Tahoe in the High Sierra. Interstate 80, one of the United States’ major transportation corridors, traverses almost the entire length of the county. Placer County climbs from sea level to an elevation of about 9,000 feet in just 90 miles and features many remote communities and mountain canyons where radio waves often do not penetrate effectively. This varied topography makes communication particularly challenging during such emergencies as canyon rescues and isolated wildfires.

In Placer County, law enforcement agencies must be able to communicate effectively during emergencies such as major crimes, hostage situations, and hazardous material spills as well as many natural disasters that occur frequently, in part because of the county’s topography. The county is susceptible to many types of natural disasters, including wildfires, flooding, back-country avalanches, and severe wind damage.

Topography and a rich history that saw many communities spring up almost overnight during the California Gold Rush help explain why Placer County has a multitude of emergency agencies. During large emergencies, response efforts sometimes involve 25 to 30 agencies. Wildfires in Southern California last year—which caused eight deaths, prompted law enforcement agencies to help more than 500,000 people evacuate their homes, and charred more than 500,000 acres focused a spotlight on the need for improving public safety communications throughout California and led to a call for statewide interoperability by 2017.

All these factors have helped convince Placer County that it is on the right track and that its approach to building a countywide radio network might serve as a model for other jurisdictions.

Communications Problems

Placer County’s current law enforcement radio system is more than 16 years old and is prone to frequent breakdowns. While repairs are made, the county’s law enforcement agencies sometimes are forced to relocate equipment and stretch the system’s coverage capabilities to ensure continuity of operations during public safety emergencies.

A detailed review determined that refurbishing the current radio system offered only a temporary fix that would not be cost-effective. Costs for maintaining the system would remain high, replacement parts are no longer manufactured for much of the system’s equipment, and the refurbished system would still be plagued with significant downtime. In addition, radio frequencies in the public safety spectrum that are available to handle voice data communications do not meet the existing system’s requirements.

Figure 1. Placer County Sheriff's Department Lieutenant Kevin Borden demonstrates patrol communications equipment to Supervisor Rocky Rockholm, a retired police sergeant and member of the Placer County Board of Supervisors.
Photo by Anita Yoder, Placer County public information officer

The system also lacks interoperability, limiting the integration of the Sheriff’s Department with other law enforcement agencies. F. C. “Rocky” Rockholm, a member of the Placer County Board of Supervisors, understands how critical that shortcoming is. He served as a police officer in the city of Roseville for 15 years before retiring as a sergeant in 1996. “Last year’s wildfires in California demonstrated why it is so important for all emergency agencies to use compatible equipment that makes communication quick and easy,” he said, adding,

As a police officer, I witnessed many of the problems created when agencies have been unable to effectively communicate with each other. That is why I consider the new countywide radio network so essential. By improving communication, law enforcement and other agencies will be able to do a better job protecting the public by ensuring they coordinate their responses and react appropriately to changing circumstances. That’s particularly important in Placer County because our role as an important transportation corridor means we often need to communicate with emergency agencies from as far away as the San Francisco Bay Area and Nevada.

Supervisor Rockholm emphasized that COPS has played a vital role in the progress Placer County has made to date. “Placer County wants to do this right, but it faces many of the same budget challenges experienced by local governments across the nation. COPS is an ally that we cannot do without.”

“We welcome and seek opportunities to support forward-thinking jurisdictions on initiatives that improve the quality of the law enforcement services they offer,” said Gilbert Moore, a COPS spokesman.

Planning Efforts

In 2002, the Placer County Board of Supervisors authorized the Administrative Services Department to conduct a study of a possible countywide radio network. The intent of this study was to identify a strategy for upgrading the county’s aging public safety radio systems. To help with the study, the department contracted with a firm that specializes in radio network technology and established a 10-member Radio Study Committee. The committee comprised representatives from the county departments and outside agencies that rely heavily on county radio communications. The study found an ever-increasing need for law enforcement, fire, and medical response teams to communicate quickly and easily during emergency operations and determined that homeland security concerns have heightened awareness of the issue of interoperability. The study concluded that establishing a communications system common to local, state, and federal agencies is essential to protecting the citizens of Placer County effectively.

Agencies that operate in Placer County currently rely on approximately 36 radio systems that often use incompatible technologies, operate over various frequencies, and provide limited opportunities for interoperability. The inventory includes several types of radio systems, two county public safety dispatch centers, and approximately 1,800 portable units. The county estimates that the current systems cover only about 80 percent of the county’s more than 1,500 square miles. The existing non-law enforcement systems tend to sufferfrom the same drawbacks as the current law enforcement radio system: obsolete equipment, high failure rates for components, and high maintenance costs. Many do not comply with Project 25, the new federal radio standard established by the Federal Communications Commission in cooperation with the Association of Public Safety Officers. Many of the existing systems are used by county agencies and facilities, including the Sheriff’s Office, Office of Emergency Services, Probation Department, District Attorney’s Office, the Department of Public Works, and Animal Services. Others are used by federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, state agencies such as the California Highway Patrol, and local police and fire agencies.

The study concluded that the new countywide radio system needs to

  • be reliable,
  • provide redundancy,

  • increase traffic capacity,

  • provide 95 percent coverage,

  • have security encryption,

  • provide interoperability, and

  • comply with Project 25.

The study team created a countywide strategy to ensure that the new system would enable both public safety and general government agencies to meet mission-critical communication objectives effectively. The team also developed a conceptual network design to help guide future work and assist with funding efforts.

In February 2003, the Board of Supervisors took two critical steps: approving the strategic plan and directing the Administrative Services Department to proceed with its three-phase implementation program. The radio network Placer County intends to construct was designed in accordance with Project 25 open-architecture standards. This network will provide the following:

  • A common trunked communication platform so various public safety personnel can communicate with each other easily and effectively

  • Full and direct interoperability with fire and other public safety agencies in Placer County

  • A solution with built-in flexibility to communicate with dissimilar systems through a variety of industry-standard interfaces

  • An expanded coverage area and improved coverage reliability, including portable-to-portable and in-building coverage

  • Cost-effective operation through efficient use of frequencies regardless of frequency band

  • Open architecture based on Project 25 standards for integrated voice and data capabilities, a feature that will ensure that the county has the largest selection of mobile, portable, and ancillary equipment choices from many different vendors

  • A scalable, flexible architecture that can be expanded in capacity and functionality as technology and the county’s needs evolve

The architecture will combine the best of simulcast and multicast technologies, an ideal fit for meeting Placer County’s need to improve coverage. Simulcast will allow for the best in-building penetration and redundancy, whereas multicast will allow the county to design a system that fills in hard-to-cover areas such as canyons and remote areas.

The advanced technology proposed by Placer County will provide a flexible platform that will protect the county’s longterm investment. With the introduction of Internet technologies, advanced services such as integrated voice and data, over-the-air rekeying for encryption, highspeed data, and 700-MHz wideband data are becoming a reality.

By providing for voice and data capabilities, the new radio network will enable local law enforcement agencies to upgrade their existing mobile data network seamlessly.

Phase 1: Initial Upgrades

Now complete, the first phase of the project focused on acquiring the necessary radio frequencies, conducting a detailed engineering study, and upgrading radio tower sites to accommodate new digital technologies. Funding came from two sources: $1 million from the COPS Technology Grant Program and $500,000 from the Countywide Systems Fund.

Acquiring suitable frequencies was a critical issue. Placer County opted to acquire three sets of frequencies through nontraditional avenues because frequencies in the public safety spectrum had been depleted. Administrative Services, in cooperation with the Sheriff’s Office, identified two sources: the maritime and radio commoncarrier spectrums. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved reallocating the frequencies to the public safety spectrum in May 2005 and awarded Placer County licenses to operate a new VHF radio communication system. The average cost to purchase frequencies and obtain necessary FCC waivers was $75,000 per frequency pair.

Phase 2: Funding and Infrastructure Upgrades

The second phase of the project consisted of identifying and pursuing state and federal funding support, securing agreement on agency cost sharing and charge-back methodology, upgrading the sheriff’s dispatch centers, and expanding the radio infrastructure at the Placer County Government Center in Auburn, the county seat. Much of the funding was from two COPS Technology Grants totaling more than $1.7 million. Funding for the first two phases of the project also came from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Grant Program, the Countywide Systems Fund, and the County Building Fund.

As part of the second phase, a new radio tower was built, and the Sheriff’s Emergency 9-1-1 Dispatch Center in Auburn was relocated from an unreinforced masonry structure built during World War II to a new, state-of-the-art public safety building (see figure 2). Also during this phase, progress was made on several complex administrative and cost-allocation issues.

Supervisor Rockholm tours Placer County's new state-of-the-art dispatch center with Lieutenant Borden, as Jennie Schultz, Public Safety Dispatcher II, receives and responds to emergency communications from residents, patrol units, and other public safety agencies. Lieutenant Borden, the Dispatch Communication Division manager, also oversees the Homeland Security Unit.
Photo by Anita Yoder

Phase 3: Construction

The third phase will focus on constructing, testing, and implementing a digital radio network that will meet the county’s current and future needs. This part of the project will be technologically challenging and administratively complex, requiring approximately $18.5 million in infrastructure improvements and $4 million in new end-user radio equipment. Phase 3 costs will include an estimated $1.5 million to install a microwave system along the Interstate 80 corridor and $2 million for site development work. The largest share of the project costs and the most critical needs are for law enforcement agencies, which account for about 70 percent of the radio infrastructure and equipment costs.

Placer County anticipates funding the balance of phase 3 with a combination of local, state, and federal funds. For the 2009 federal fiscal year, the county is requesting $2.5 million in additional federal funding to continue implementation of this final phase.

To accommodate funding constraints, Placer County has developed a fivestep plan to complete the third phase. On March 11, the Board of Supervisors approved taking the first step: awarding more than $3.4 million to Motorola, Inc., for the purchase of digital radio infrastructure. Federal funds and money from the Countywide Systems Fund will be used for the purchase.

It is expected that phase 3 will take several years from inception to full implementation. “I am very impressed at how much progress Placer County has made on this project already, and confident we will find a way to complete phase 3 well ahead of the state’s goal of having statewide interoperability by 2017,” Supervisor Rockholm said.

For more information about the Placer County interoperability project, the authors can be reached via e-mail at or ?

Clark Moots, Placer County’s director of administrative services,has been an information technology professional for more than 25 years. He has extensive experience in technology solutions for the law enforcement and public safety communties.
Mike Fitch is an information officer for Placer County. He has six years of experience in his current position and worked for many years as a writer and newspaper reporter.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXV, no. 6, June 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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