After years in limbo, what has been dubbed as one of the most important emergency preparedness and homeland security projects in the state is about to take shape in Los Angeles County, even as surrounding counties push for similar projects.

A joint-powers authority will receive bids next month for the initial phase of a pioneering communications system that would, for the first time, allow Los Angeles County's 34,000 first responders and 17,000 second responders to, basically, talk with each other.

Currently, law enforcement and fire departments use an often incompatible and outdated patchwork of radio technologies and frequencies, which can significantly hamper a coordinated response to calamities and endanger lives.

The proposed Los Angeles Regional Interoperable Communications System (LA-RICS) is intended to replace that.

"This will let emergency crews respond anywhere in the county - whether inside their city, outside their city, from the northern and southern regions of the county, east, west and beyond - using a common radio system," said Pat Mallon, the project's executive director. "Nothing like this has ever been undertaken before."

Los Angeles County is one of several municipalities that have pushed to overhaul its public safety radio system in recent years. San Bernardino and Riverside counties have also been making strides in upgrading their antiquated systems.

In San Bernardino County, efforts to upgrade its 800 MHz public safety radio communications system have been hampered by budget cuts. For the past 22 years, the county's police and fire agencies have relied on an analog system now considered outdated. The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors this year approved a $160-million digital upgrade and plans to make incremental annual payments of $20 million for eight years.

An updated public safety radio system is vital in San Bernardino County, where a mountain range divides the San Bernardino Valley from the High Desert and improved frequency is essential, county spokesman David Wert said.

"It's the only way people in all parts of the county can communicate with each other at all times, reliably," Wert said.

San Bernardino County's system is so old that replacement parts are hard to come by, so much so that technicians have had to search E-Bay to find scarce parts, officials said.

San Bernardino County sheriff's spokeswoman Jodi Miller said the new system will enhance and improve interoperability within all facets of public safety, not only within San Bernardino County but with surrounding counties as well.

"This digital standard will improve officer safety through enhanced radio communication and better interoperability," Miller said.

Riverside County is expected to launch its upgraded $172 million radio system next year. The expanded network includes 50 additional towers and will cost more than $14 million annually to operate, according to press reports.

Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said when multiple agencies respond to an emergency, they sometimes have to wait hours or longer for a vehicle to drive up with the equipment to put their radios on the same frequency.

"When the 2009 Station Fire first began, we had firefighters from different departments who weren't able to communicate," Osby said. "Sometimes it takes us at least a day, minimum, to bring in our radio communication experts to patch up frequencies among firefighters.

"And when we bring in (secondary responders) like Public Works personnel for street closures and for coordinating traffic flow, Southern California Edison for power line issues, and Animal Control for evacuation of animals, we cannot communicate with them either," he said.

Mallon declined to reveal the current expected cost of the project, because the bidding process remains open. He acknowledged, however, that an estimate from a number of years ago was $600 million.

To date, the federal government has committed $240 million. Mallon is hoping for additional federal grants, but added the LA-RICS Joint Powers Authority has also considered a bond or tax initiative, or a lease-to-own arrangement with whoever wins the contract to create the system.

They hope to begin construction in June 2014, more than a decade since Los Angeles officials realized the need for the technology after seeing the communications breakdowns among first responders in New York City following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.