A city of Santa Cruz fire engine.
A city of Santa Cruz fire engine.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Outdated ‘Flintstone’ radio system sounds alarm for Santa Cruz-area fire officials, sparks push for overhaul

SPECIAL REPORT: “The best way I can say (it) is you’ve got a computer from 1990 that has limited memory, and you’re trying to load the latest version of Google Maps,” Santa Cruz Fire Chief Jason Hajduk says of the system. But finding the money to fix things won’t be easy.

Santa Cruz County municipal firefighters are relying on what they say is an outdated radio system — with some officials calling it “Flintstone” technology — raising concerns about reliability during emergencies and sparking a push for an overhaul.

The radio system is used by all municipal fire departments. And though county officials say the “backbone” infrastructure of the system was updated about two to three years ago, parts of it are older than that.

Fire officials say first responders need a better long-term solution as the county continues to grow and radio technologies improve.

“It’s really old technology,” Santa Cruz Fire Chief Jason Hajduk said. “It’s not as reliable as it should be. And it doesn’t have the ability to adapt to new technology that we’re implementing. . . . The best way I can say (it) is you’ve got a computer from 1990 that has limited memory, and you’re trying to load the latest version of Google Maps, and it won’t work.”

Though parts have been replaced over the years, the system remains “very fragile” and “could be easily overwhelmed,” especially during a disaster like an earthquake where large groups of people are affected at once, said Felton Fire Chief Robert Gray, who is helping lead a push to fully replace the system.

“They’ve tried to boost things here and there, but it still, you know, was designed 30 years ago to be what it was — and there’s been a lot of variables that have changed since then,” he said.

‘We lose reception . . . we have no reception’

The issue at hand is both one of coverage and capacity. “Right now if we go into buildings a lot of times we lose reception,” Gray said. “There’s certain parts, especially in the mountains here, where we’ll go and we have no reception.”

Day-to-day calls can lead to issues with a limited number of channels available for first responders to communicate with dispatchers. That means when six or seven medical emergencies happen at the same time, it can create a delay.

Felton Fire Chief Robert Gray
(Felton Fire Protection District)

“If you get a couple of fires going in the county, we’re overloaded, the radio system’s overloaded,” Gray said. “And when you have one channel for dispatch and running incidents, it gets very, very crowded very, very quickly. And again causes those delays.”

The radio system is owned by the fire agencies but is maintained and managed by Santa Cruz County under a contract.

Local police departments, like in the cities of Santa Cruz and Watsonville, have their own radio infrastructure that they maintain, though the county occasionally helps them, said Tammie Weigl, assistant director in the county’s Information Services Department.

The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office is on a similar but separate radio infrastructure than the fire agencies, according to Weigl. Gray, the Felton fire chief, likens it to “twins:” Though they’re not shared, he said, they’re the same technology, parts and pieces — just built separately.

“They have different antenna sites but the problems are all the same,” Gray said. “They’ve battled through the same issues that we have through the years.”

That’s why Gray and other fire departments want to work with other agencies to potentially bring everyone on a newer system to “fix both the problems and share the cost.”

Old and outdated radios and receivers are stacked on the bumper of one of the Felton Fire Department trucks.
Outdated handheld radio units, called “portables,” and bigger “mobiles” are stacked on the bumper of one of the Felton Fire Department’s trucks. Although the department recently received new units, it still uses the old radio infrastructure.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

“It’s an option,” he said. “It’s not to say that that’s what we’re going to do, but it’s something that we’re looking at as far as, ‘how can we take this insurmountable obstacle and try to make it a little bit more attainable.’”

Coming up with the necessary funds for a new system — expected to cost millions — or another long-term solution is a major hurdle. Currently, the money the county charges the fire agencies only really covers the cost to keep the system running, Gray said.

“We’ve been replacing parts as needed, and it’s kind of like the Golden Gate Bridge: you get done with one end of painting it, you’ve got to start back at the beginning again,” he said.

Emergency Radio 101

Local first responders use different types of radio channels. Tactical channels work in close proximity, like from car to car. They allow firefighters at the scene of a fire, for instance, to communicate “down in the weeds details,” Gray said. “Repeated” channels, meaning ones that can be heard anywhere in the county, meanwhile, are used to communicate with dispatchers.

A second “repeated” channel “has been down for over two years,” Gray said. But fire officials are hopeful it may be back. “They kind of did some tuning on it and put some duct tape on it, some bubble gum, and it’s working again so we’re gonna start using that starting next week again,” Gray said last week. “But it’s on borrowed time.”

For major wildfires, all first responders switch over and operate on Cal Fire’s system, which is “pretty solid,” Gray said. But a permanent switch to that system would be too expensive on a day-to-day basis, officials have determined, in part because additional equipment might be needed to provide coverage to areas that their system may not cover.

Part of the problem is that as the county has grown, so has its call volume. The radio system and its communication channels, however, have remained mostly static, fire officials say.

Santa Cruz Fire Chief Jason Hajduk
(Santa Cruz Fire Department via Facebook)

Hajduk, the Santa Cruz Fire Chief, likened it to a home that has only one phone but has added inhabitants, jumping from two people to nine.

“Now you’ve got nine people in that house and you still have the same phone,” he said. “And so all that communication is going through one piece of equipment that hasn’t changed. And now you have people in that house who are on the phone, and they’re saying, ‘Hey, can you text me that photo?’ And you’re like, ‘No, I’m on a landline.’”

The concerns over and problems with the radio system aren’t new. Fire officials agree that they simply have gotten lucky so far. That good fortune will run out some day, Gray said.

“I could not live with myself if I knew that there was an issue and there was something that I could do about it as fire chief to potentially save the lives of firefighters, citizens or both,” he said.

Cal Fire Chief Ian Larkin reflects on what this year’s fire season could have in store — and what it has already thrown...

‘Yabba Dabba Doo’

Hajduk, who represents the fire agencies within the county on its Emergency Medical Care Commission, last month explained the issue to fellow representatives on that board.

“We’re using Flintstone, Yabba Dabba Doo technology, and we live right next to Silicon Valley,” he told fellow commissioners.

Fire chiefs across the county have banded together to figure out what vendors and options are available to completely replace the system, and eventually devise a way to pay for it — an undertaking that could cost millions and potentially take years.

We’re using Flintstone, Yabba Dabba Doo technology, and we live right next to Silicon Valley.

— Santa Cruz Fire Chief Jason Hajduk

Officials still have lots of work to do before they can really put a price tag on a new system, Gray said, but at least one of the options came back with a quote of $11 million.

Among the options being discussed is moving local agencies over onto a new statewide system that is being built by the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. That system is “well built” and “very robust,” Gray said, and could be the most-cost effective solution, but fire officials still need to determine if it’s “attainable” and if fire agencies can afford it.

Funding for a new system could likely boil down to government grants. Though he’d ideally like to have a replacement as quickly as possible, realistically finding a long-term solution could take two or three years, Gray said.

The county’s Emergency Medical Care Commission, for its part, signaled that replacing the radio system should be a high priority.

Dr. Marc Yellin, who represents the Santa Cruz County Medical Society on the commission, said during the meeting in mid-March that the issue should be a “very top ticket item.” The commission has discussed sending a letter to the Board of Supervisors related to the radio system, outlining the challenges.

“It sure seems like we should be expecting that something bad is going to happen again,” Yellin said, referring to the next potential disaster impacting the county. “And it’d be better to be proactive.”