Has Public Safety Radio Project Become Platinum-Plated Nightmare?
More than two and a half years after Austin voters approved $38 million in bonds toward the purchase of a new emergency radio system, the network -- which was sold to voters with the promise of being fully operational by 1999 -- is still at least three years away from installation. One might think that purchasing a new radio system to allow local law enforcement officers, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel to communicate with one another would be a relatively simple task. But in the time it has taken local officials to organize a coalition in 1994, vote on the measure in 1997, write and disseminate a 1,500-page Request for Proposals (RFP) in 1998, and hear oral presentations from bidders in late 1999, other Texas cities have already designed, procured, and implemented similar "trunking systems" -- a single radio channel used by mobile units. The long-running process in Austin has taken on an obscure life of its own due to a combination of factors:
Two weeks ago, the radio saga took a new twist when Austin Police Chief Stan Knee yanked Commander Kenny Williams from the project and put one of his assistant chiefs, Bruce Mills, in charge. Williams oversaw radio system acquisition for APD and played a prominent role in drawing up the most recent RFP. It's no secret that there had been complaints, from both inside and outside of APD, that Williams has been a little too cozy with Motorola, if for no other reason than the department's existing Motorola radio system. Williams shrugs off the job transfer as an "organizational change. -- I'm just moving to a new job, doing some research for the chief," he says.
With Assistant Chief Mills now overseeing the job, there may be more changes afoot. Police and civilian sources familiar with the project believe the staffing change occurred after Knee -- who inherited the project when he joined the department just two years ago -- is finally becoming aware of the near debacle the project has become.
Mills says that while he has replaced Williams on the project, his new responsibilities will include overseeing all of APD's capital projects. Mills also downplayed allegations that Williams favored Motorola. "I've heard speculations about Kenny's involvement, but that didn't have anything to do with his removal from the project," Mills says. "But those speculations will exist when you are involved with a project like this, that you're either associated with [a particular vendor] or that you're going to have a job afterward or be a consultant. I expect professionalism and I am going into this with the intent to get the best product for our employees. These projects require a lot of money and are really important to the police department," Mills adds. "They are major investments, and we don't want to make any mistakes."
Mills also promises to look into why the timeline on the project keeps extending. "That's just what I am asking. Who developed these timelines and when are we going to have this? I don't know right now, but I expect to learn more."
Local officials -- with Williams and Danny Hobby, director of the city's information systems department, at the forefront -- have been talking about installing a new radio system since 1985, just four years after the existing network was implemented in 1980-81. Hobby, then with the city's radio shop, and Williams, then head of communications for APD, knew that the current system was already showing signs of obsolescence: Public safety entities could not communicate directly with one another, the city was having a hard time securing replacement parts for the system, and interference on existing channels was increasing as more people joined the already crowded airwaves in a fast-growing city. They also knew, says Hobby, that "trunking" was the wave of the future.
Obsolete Since 1985
But instead of taking care of the city's radio dilemma in short order, Williams and Hobby expanded the one public safety initiative into a plan that would include all city departments, as well as various other state and regional interests, to create one combined super-radio system. They also turned the single radio project into a proposal that would include seven other communication technology innovations.
The result was the formation in 1994 of the 911 RDMT Coalition. Since then the coalition has been creating a proposal for a new radio system, designed for 10 different entities with very different needs.
The result, one city official observes dryly, is the city "chartering the QE2 to go bass fishing." The proposed radio system is full of expensive and superfluous bells and whistles, say many public safety officers and others knowledgeable about the process. Between the extravagant proposal and the varied interests of the coalition members, many of Austin's public safety officers have privately come to distrust the purchasing process, and those in the city responsible for what they say has become an exercise in "empire building" -- especially the coalition's masterminds, Hobby and, until two weeks ago, Williams. On July 13, in a sixth floor conference room in the Waller Creek Center, home of the city's Information Systems Department, four public safety officials -- Hobby, Williams, Mike Simpson, network administrator for city wireless communications, and David Stone, an EMS research and technology manager -- met with the Chronicle to discuss an innovative partnership the city formed five years ago with various entities. The coalition has charged itself with providing a state-of-the-art, trunked two-way radio system for, among other entities, the city's public safety departments -- APD, the Austin Fire Department, and EMS. On this day, the air is charged with their excitement, and they can't help but talk over one another. They are, they remark, part of something big, something unique and innovative, the likes of which Austin has never seen before.
EMS manager Stone recalls a television interview coalition members conducted shortly before the 1997 bond election. They had just returned from a trip to Motorola headquarters just outside of Chicago, where they viewed state-of-the-art equipment as well as "graveyard" radio systems housed in the Motorola Museum. "We were doing one of our first interviews before the May bond election at the central fire station, and the fire lieutenant was talking about the radio system," Stone says. "And it just so happened that the lieutenant was carrying a radio on his belt that we had just seen in the Motorola Museum. And here we are carrying it as a front line radio." He looks up, and the four simultaneously break into laughter. "You don't know how long those [radios] are going to work," Stone says.
Later, on the phone with an Austin police officer, the laughter is replaced by ire: "That's reality," says the officer, who requested anonymity, as did several other public safety officers who agreed to be interviewed. "That's my world. These are management types who don't have to rely on a radio to get them help. Their asses are not on the line. Our asses are on the line and we aren't laughing."
Nor were they laughing in December 1996 when a six-alarm fire burned the campus-area Centennial Condominiums. "That was a mess," says one fire department official. APD squad cars "were blocking the fire hydrants and we couldn't even talk to them directly [via two-way radio] to get them to move their cars."
And no one laughed in December 1997 either, when APD officers mistakenly shot a fellow officer, as well as an off-duty Travis County sheriff's deputy, who was seriously injured, while answering a domestic violence call in Southeast Austin. "It was all caused by the radio system," says an APD officer. "When the deputy was coming out of the house they said, "Cops coming out,' but the other officers couldn't hear that, so they started shooting. Our radio system is an absolute piece of junk."
With the current network, it is impossible for the area's various public safety entities -- APD, AFD, and EMS, as well as the Travis County sheriff's office -- to communicate directly with one another, a horrifying thought when all three departments are responding to the same emergency call. Currently, all calls between the officers must first be routed through dispatchers.
Additionally, public safety officers complain of "dead spots" in areas of town where no communication at all is possible on the antiquated radio system. City parks police say that's a frightening reality for them when radio communication is impossible in some remote areas of the greenbelt. Other problems include severe interference from other districts as far away as Hope, Arkansas, and a lack of available replacement parts for the existing radios and dispatch equipment. And as the city continues to grow while available radio frequencies continue to decrease, the problems aren't getting any better.
But coalition member Simpson, network administrator for the project, says that the system in place now, while certainly not up-to-date, isn't going to collapse before a new system can be installed. "The public," he says, "should not think the world is coming to an end."
City Council Member Bill Spelman agrees. "Somehow it works, but it's not elegant. So I don't think we're needing a stop-gap system," he says. "But I think we'll all feel much better once we get the mess cleaned up."
Unlike conventional UHF systems, where each public safety entity operates on a separate set of radio channels, trunking allows all available channels to be pooled into a single group; a hub computer assigns available radio channels as needed. "Right now [the] police [department] has so many channels and EMS has so many," Simpson explains. Under the current UHF setup, Simpson says, if a police officer wanted to talk on a channel that was being used by another officer, he would have to wait for the second officer to finish, even if an EMS channel was vacant. "Under trunking, all these channels are pooled, and the computer system automatically selects a vacant channel for you when you need it," Simpson says. "It is a more efficient use of spectrum, which means more police calls can be instantaneous, more EMS calls can be happening, within that same amount of spectrum because you are all sharing."
It's All in the "Trunk"
Spectrum sharing became paramount in the early 1990s, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued mandates requiring existing radio channel bandwidths to be narrowed in order to accommodate a growing number of users. It was, in essence, these FCC mandates that birthed the current 911 RDMT Coalition. Realizing that the mandates would affect more people than just those in Austin's public safety offices, Hobby and Williams began talking with other agencies in the area. "We all knew we had old systems, and we all knew we couldn't talk to each other as public safety agencies, so we decided to start meeting and see if there were things we could do together," says Hobby.
Hobby says that collaborating on the communications system will have myriad benefits for the city. "When you start doing things together, there are so many advantages. -- When you bring in other players, other entities, you add upon the benefits you will receive, because [not only do you all] receive the cost savings, but also, you are going to be able to communicate with people you were never able to communicate with before."
APD's Williams, who was interviewed before he was removed from the project, agrees. "It doesn't make a lot of sense fiscally, for the taxpayer, to build the same infrastructure twice," he says. "By pooling our money we get the things we need at less total cost. Part of our job is to be fiscally responsible and do this in the most efficient way possible. That's why we formed this coalition."
If the city shares costs with nine other coalition members -- all but TxDOT are included in the radio package -- taxpayers would save money. Instead of each entity building separate radio towers and purchasing separate dispatch equipment, all the resources could be shared and included in a single infrastructure package. Neither coalition members nor the Chronicle could find any similar partnership at work in the U.S. And just the idea of grouping together such varied interests -- from Austin Community College to Capital Metro -- and getting them all to agree on the specifics of one system sounds like a bureaucratic nightmare. That's at least part of the reason that, several years into the process, there is still no new radio system for area public safety officers.
"I understand that it takes time to reinvent the wheel," says one APD source. "The city is out playing Star Trek -- going where no man has gone before and all that. Meanwhile, officers are out there running around shooting each other because they can't talk to one another on their radios."
Despite the slow-moving process, coalition members say it's exciting to be involved in a project that will be -- if it all comes together as designed -- the largest radio system in the world. With 15,000 users, the system would edge out the 14,000-user Taiwan National Police. But the interests represented by the coalition are so varied that some question whether the group will be able to stay together. While the emergency communication needs of groups like APD, AFD, and EMS are fairly obvious, what are the needs of entities like the Texas Legislative Council?
Largest Radio System
"We are kind of an odd member," admits Steve Collins, lead attorney for the TLC. "But because we are involved in management and administration in almost every aspect of the legislative process and everything that surrounds the whole Capitol complex, and [because] we handle all the tech help, we do need to have an excellent communications system." Still, for a TLC computer technician to radio back to the main office for help fixing a glitch in one of the Legislature's 5,000 PCs is a far cry from a six-alarm fire in West Campus or a contentious domestic violence call in Southeast Austin.
"Because of this project, [each coalition member's] needs have been elevated to the importance of the police, the firefighters, or the EMS," says an APD officer. "It's crazy. This basically is our system," he says, referring to APD, EMS, and AFD. "And I think the chief [Knee] is starting to say, "Wait a minute. We need to get back on track here."
Besides the varied interests, there is also the fact that some of the smaller entities have a lot less money to put up for the estimated $70 million project. And some question whether such entities will be able to hold on through the entire evaluation process and subsequent construction before their antiquated systems give out. The city of Austin and other large partners, like Capital Metro -- which has a total of $12.7 million earmarked for various coalition initiatives -- have already proposed or spent money in the interim to buy new radio equipment and repair existing gear to ensure they can still communicate while the coalition process inches along.
In fact, according to Cap Metro's budget for fiscal year 2000, which began Sept. 1, the transit authority plans to spend nearly $2 million on new radio equipment this year, just to ensure that they can avoid "system failures" until the coalition can sort through the evaluations. "With the current radio system we are unable to meet the system requirements -- as it relates to service," the budget report states. "This solution would serve as a short-term option until long-term solutions, including the 911 Coalition, can be evaluated." Similarly, the city of Austin continues to buy new radios and seek out replacement parts -- sometimes finding them in junkyards, according to APD's Williams -- to keep the city's radios running.
But other entities, like the ACC Police Dept., cannot afford such interim measures. "A lot of the smaller entities like us are worried and are considering leaving [the coalition] because we have such awful equipment and can't wait," says Paul Williams, ACC's chief of police. Indeed, ACC does not appear to have any money earmarked for the project in its technology systems account."There was money for the past two years, but -- it was spent on other things," said Paul Mosier of ACC's technical systems office. "There's no money in the account now. -- I thought they were exploring other options."
ACC isn't the only coalition member on the verge of bailing. According to West Lake Hills' police chief, Clifford Spratlan, unless the coalition decides to build a Motorola system, his department is definitely out of the deal. The department's system was so old, says Spratlan, that they went ahead and purchased a brand-new conventional system, built by Motorola, two years ago. "Our antiquated system was on its last breath. It was so awful that I couldn't stand in the parking lot and talk to my dispatcher," he says. "We've got about $1 million in equipment here. We're not going to throw it all away."
The problem for Spratlan's department is that if the coalition awards the coveted contract to Ericsson, their Motorola system will be incompatible. As it stands, the two technological platforms that the communications giants operate on are still proprietary, meaning entities on an Ericsson system and entities on a Motorola system cannot communicate with one another.
In reality, it isn't certain that any of the coalition members will stay involved with the project after the final evaluations are in. All 10 members have made it clear that they are only involved as long as the system will meet their long-term needs. The language of Cap Metro's budget makes this stipulation clear. "Long-range improvements [to the radio system] could include participation in the 911 Coalition. -- In the event that Capital Metro determines that another long-range solution better fits the organization's needs, then the funding for the 911 project would be transferred to the new project after seeking concurrence from the Board of Directors."
Indeed, there are other options which would cost considerably less than the bells-and-whistles system the city and its coalition partners are proposing. Currently, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) has an Ericsson-built 900 MHz trunked system that serves all sorts of users across Central Texas. Radio users, such as the city of San Marcos and the Elgin Police Department, have been able to join the LCRA system by paying for their radios and monthly air time, saving millions on infrastructure costs. In fact, the LCRA system is an alternative that many of the coalition members could join. The LCRA alternative "is still in there," says Simpson. "They are not a vendor like Ericsson or Motorola; they are an existing government entity that has an alternative. -- The team has assured all the political entities that they [LCRA] will be evaluated in some fashion before a recommendation goes in."
But the possibility that the coalition might fall apart doesn't really bother Hobby or Simpson -- at least not on the surface. Says Hobby, "What's interesting is that for the past five years we have been working together. So they [coalition members] will stay with us to see whether it is feasible for them. -- When people are working together, it is positive for the community."
Hobby stresses that coalition members are working together like "a family." The "family" is a tight-lipped group, directing most questions to Hobby. Hobby and Simpson say coalition members are reluctant to talk because the group is so close-knit. Most coalition members refused to answer any questions about the project. "Oh, I don't have any feelings about the coalition," says David Buesing, a coalition representative from the Pflugerville Police Department. "And if anyone wants to ask questions, we've been told to refer them back to Danny Hobby."
Whether there are any partners left in the coalition by the time the evaluations are complete, the city will move ahead on its own. "The city will implement a system -- $38 million worth -- whether we have other partners or not," says Simpson. "It would be a lesser system, less bells and whistles, but it will be designed to cover our needs." However, it is this possibility -- that the city would have wasted five years involved in a coalition with nothing to show for it -- that perturbs many public safety officers. "In 1993, police, fire, and EMS told the [city] council we need a trunked system within the next four to five years, and now it is 1999 and we still seem to be four or five years away," says a police officer. "They want to make a citywide system and that's good and great. But they've spent so much time kissing ass that it's already taken six years."
What's Done Is Done
Indeed, the timelines for system implementation have crept further and further into the future. Now it looks like June 2000 before the city will even sign a contract with a vendor, says Hobby. So, when will the public safety radios be loaded? "We are having an aggressive timeline that we try to meet," says Hobby. "If we don't meet it, that doesn't mean the world comes to an end, it means that we move forward to the next date. However, because we have so many variables that means our schedule will be variable." (See "Radio Timeline," p.36.) Not so variable, perhaps, for coalition members such as ACC.
Coalition member Paul Williams of ACC says the last he heard, the timeframe is even further in the future. "The last date I was told, the buzz was that public safety won't be on until 2003. It's been pushed back. And when I first came on board they said 2001," he says. "Now it's 2003. And then the coalition could say we need another widget or whatever, and then 2003 becomes 2033. We can't wait that long."
One other likely delay in the process is that before any contract is signed, the recommended vendor proposal would have to make its way through each of the coalition members' ruling bodies before finally making its way to the Austin City Council. While the city is acting as the agent for this deal, it is by no means driving the deal, city coalition members stipulate. So, the selected proposal will have to pass through the AISD board of trustees, the Cap Metro board, and so on, before winding its way back around to the City Council.
And if the worst-case scenario happens, and the city is left with no partners in the deal, would that push the timeline back even further? Would the city then have to go back and propose a new system, starting the process all over again? The answer is no and no, according to both Hobby and Simpson. Yet there would have to be some significant tweaking to the system as currently designed. "If we look at this proposal and say we want something less than the totality, it is not simply pulling out pieces and saying we'll take this system," explains Simpson. "There is a give- and-take process that would happen with the vendors, to get them down to what we would need. For a city-only system, [we would] look at it all and say we don't really need this and this, we need this culled down to a system figure or a coverage figure. So we would plan together and it would be a give and take. It wouldn't be a simple line-item deletion."
Beyond the coalition's size and bureaucratic overtones, there is at least one other reason the timeline is as nebulous as it is, a reason whose roots are tapped in the past, in Austin's not too clean history with radio procurement.
Austin's Checkered Past
How is it, one might ask, that in a techno-savvy city like Austin -- with a dedicated squad of officials who asked nearly six years ago to take on the radio issue, that there could be such a communications problem? After nine months of research and interviews, the Chronicle has learned that what has delayed Austin's plan to implement a new network is not only the size and political interests of the coalition, but also the city's history with radio procurement.
It is safe to say that the city of Austin has not had the best of luck in buying radio equipment. In fact, in the last two serious rounds of purchasing -- in 1980-81, when the current Motorola system was installed, and in 1986-87, when the city sought to purchase additional equipment -- some problems popped up: The consultant hired to advise the city during the 1980-81 acquisition of the current system was convicted of fraud and sent to federal prison. The consultant had apparently bilked the city out of nearly $1 million in consulting fees, while providing less than stellar technical advice, which favored Motorola's technical platform over the city's specific technical needs. And during the 1986-87 procurement of new radio equipment, the city's purchasing office was accused, by Barbara Wilson of the small Austin-based APW Electronics, of favoring Motorola over other vendors. When she asked the city's purchasing office for the current system's technical specifications -- to determine if she could bid on the project -- the purchasing office gave her a list of existing Motorola equipment, telling her that those were the only specifications. Both of these incidents played out in front of a City Council that was fairly clueless that a small group of city staffers was reportedly playing favorites with Motorola. "There probably was a very strong prejudice towards Motorola in that time period for any number of reasons," says Williams, who asked back in July to be the one to address the question of the city's past radio dealings. Williams, was at the council meetings when the question of whether the city was favoring Motorola came up in early 1987, at the behest of Wilson's attorney, Terry Davis. Williams says that back then staffers' relationship with Motorola did not involve staffers feathering their nests with Motorola favors -- as was alleged -- but rather trying to stay abreast of the nature of the technology at that time. "You essentially had to buy into one vendor, because they all had proprietary systems -- signaling schemes -- and it was just the nature of the system that was put in. You are locked into them," says Williams. "Unless they were willing to license their technology to other vendors so they could build a compatible radio, then you were locked into buying that vendor's radio."
City officials are quick to vow there will be no foul-ups this time around: The coalition was designed to ensure a competitive bidding process, and the RFP was designed to be as general as possible, so that there would be no perceptions that the city is favoring Motorola, coalition members say. "The coalition is not just public safety but also public service," says EMS's Stone. "Motorola tends to market heavily to public safety and Ericsson tended to market heavily towards public service. That is where we really have an advantage, because we have this coalition that really spans the spectrum. And everybody has a seat on the evaluations and everybody had a seat on developing the specifications. So we could be assured that nothing was written in a weird way," to favor one vendor over another. And Williams is quick to agree. "We took great pains to make sure [the RFP] was not prejudiced in any way -- to make it very generic," he says. "We are looking forward to seeing a very competitive bid, and quite frankly we don't care who it is."
But public safety officers are less than convinced that the coalition's mammoth structure is a good thing. "There is a lot of power in this project," says one officer. "And I see a lot of grandstanding going on."
Another reason the city folks are quick to say there will be a competitive bid process is that at first they weren't sure they were going to get one. And the reason the timeline was pushed back the first time had everything to do with this perception. The project's RFP was issued in June 1998, at which point the timeline called for proposals to be due to the coalition on Oct. 5, 1998 -- just four months later. However, right away it looked as though Motorola would be the only bidder, a situation the coalition, not to mention the city of Austin, could not afford. The near sole-bidder situation resulted from Ericsson's reluctance to put together a bid for a project in a city that has had so many questions arise about favoring one vendor over another. Because of the costs involved in preparing a proposal, Ericsson officials didn't know if it would be worth the time, effort, or cash. So the city -- and the coalition by extension -- moved the timeline back nearly a year. To ensure competition, proposals weren't due until Aug. 17, 1999. In the end there were only the two bidders, Ericsson and Motorola. "There was something out of our control that we felt was very important, so we extended our timeline," says Hobby. "So we felt like in order to ensure that we had adequate competition, we abided with that to give all vendors an opportunity to submit a proposal."
While lobbying by the competitors is prohibited during the evaluation stage of the bids, Motorola and Ericsson have each hired local consultants to work in their behalf. Motorola has employed Howard Falkenberg, who helped bring Computer Sciences Corporation downtown, and Ericsson has retained Don Martin, who worked on the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport campaign, and whose clients include Waste Management Inc. and Longhorn Pipeline.
"We know a lot about radios, because they've been lobbying hard for a few months," said Council Member Spelman. "It's a pain in the neck, but it's perfectly legal." After the bids were submitted, though, each proposer was required to sign an affidavit saying they would cease lobbying efforts throughout the evaluation process. "The radio business is a tough business; they are very competitive," says Simpson, diplomatically. "They've been very professional and business-like the way this procurement process is going down. Because they know it is a very high-focused, spotlight kind of project."
Meanwhile, the coalition is keeping the identity of the evaluation team members and their meeting places under tight wraps. City officials will not even reveal how many members are sitting on each of the evaluation committees. "A lot of people are interested in their [evaluation team members'] names, a lot of people are interested in where we are meeting," says Hobby. "This is not necessarily cloak and dagger. We just don't want anybody coming at us and saying you did this because of that. That's why when you make phone calls to people, they are going to be very sensitive that we don't give anything out that would in any way cause a vendor to have any kind of preferential treatment."
According to Vic Chanmugan, the city's supervising senior buyer in purchasing, all such information will be kept quiet until a contract is signed. "The public will be given an opportunity to see a matrix once we decide to make a contract," he says. "Then we will publish the matrix, which lists the factors on which we base the evaluations."
Last May, the San Antonio City Council unanimously voted to replace its outdated Motorola system with an Ericisson network, bringing a four-year procurement process to an end. At the time of the contract signing, the San Antonio Express-News quoted Mayor Howard Peak saying he was anxious to get the new system installed because the current system often makes it impossible for safety and emergency officers to communicate. "We have had some close calls and near misses over the years," he said. "I want to try to reduce the amount of time between now and when we don't have to keep our fingers crossed."
Meanwhile, the city and the coalition move into the next century with their outdated networks. But city representatives on the coalition say they don't want anyone -- least of all Austin's public safety officers -- to think that the city's 18-year-old radio system is anything less than functional. "There has been some confusion on the users' parts about the viability of the current system," says Simpson. "We're making adjustments constantly and resizing the system to meet our clients' needs. There is nothing in the system that I think you could call life threatening, that could create a situation where public safety and public service don't have adequate communication, given the technology that we have now. There is still life in this technology to get us to whenever the trunked system comes on line."
But these assurances aren't making the system's front-line users feel much better. "It not only puts the public at risk, but also the officers -- the police, fire, and EMS -- who respond to the calls," says one officer. "Can we go four or five more years on this system? No. This has turned into a great boondoggle."