Nixon halts public safety radio plan

Tuesday, January 20, 2009 | 3:41 p.m. CST; updated 5:47 p.m. CST, Tuesday, January 20, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — A more than $80 million project to improve the radio system used by Missouri police, firefighters and other emergency responders has been put on hold by Gov. Jay Nixon.

The contract had been awarded to Motorola Inc. shortly before Gov. Matt Blunt left office Jan. 12. But Nixon's administration quickly put it on hold, leading to the resignation of the project manager and prompting Blunt's former public safety director to raise concerns.

Nixon spokesman Jack Cardetti said Tuesday that the project is complex, lengthy and expensive and was halted as part of Nixon's review of all long-term state contacts. Of particular concern to Nixon is how the state would finance the new radio system, Cardetti said.

"He is committed to building an interoperable system," Cardetti said. "The question is whether this is the most efficient and effective way to do it."

Even though the particular contract is on hold, Nixon plans to recommend an $8.5 million installment for a new radio system — about the same amount as included in the current budget — when he outlines his 2010 budget on Jan. 27, Cardetti said.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol currently uses a 50-year-old radio system that still has vacuum tubes in its transmitters. Few public officials question the need to replace it.

As planned, the patrol's new radio system would be compatible with scores of different communications systems used by local police, fire and ambulance districts. On any given day, Missouri's public safety personnel currently are unable to communicate directly with each other when responding to events affecting various counties or regions.

The longer the state delays construction of an interoperable communications system, the greater the chance of confusion or poor cooperation in a catastrophic situation, said Mark James, Blunt's former Department of Public Safety director who now is an administrator at Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City.

"We're all betting against the outcome of a major disaster," James said. "This spring, if we have a half-dozen communities simultaneously hit by tornadoes, the lack of interoperable communications capability is going to be apparent. And God forbid, if the New Madrid fault zone goes active, it's really going to expose the lack of interoperable communications. That lack of ability will translate to the loss of additional lives."

The $81.7 million radio system contract, dated Dec. 31, calls for the work to be completed about three years after it begins, but the contract is contingent upon the state obtaining financing during roughly the next six months.

Blunt's administration had spent considerable time building the case for a new radio system that can be used by emergency responders statewide.

Jim Lundsted, a former telecommunications engineer for the Highway Patrol and Conservation Department, was hired in fall 2007 as the state's chief interoperability officer. His main task was to coordinate the new radio system.

But Lundsted said he decided last week to retire after being told by the incoming director of the Department of Public Safety that the state didn't have the money for the radio project and needed a new strategy to finish it.

As originally envisioned, the new communications system was projected to cost between $150 million and $180 million, with the contractor covering the cost up front and the state paying it off over 10 to 12 years.

The winning bid of about $82 million was considerably less because Motorola planned to let the state use radio frequencies it had purchased, and because its plan could have covered the state without the need for as many new towers as originally thought, Lundsted said.

A spokesman for Schaumburg, Ill.-based Motorola had no immediate comment Tuesday.

But credit market troubles also made private contractor financing of the project difficult, Lundsted said, so the contract includes a provision making it subject to state-secured financing.

Nixon's administration provided a Dec. 31 e-mail from the state's purchasing director, James Miluski, to Blunt administration commissioner Larry Schepker saying that the state's existing lease financing arrangement probably could not be used for the radio system without changing the contract.

Lundsted said costs likely would rise if the contract is delayed long, because certain radio frequencies may no longer be available, existing towers could get filled with other communications equipment and more towers might have to be built.

"We brought a really, really, solid, well-designed, workable proposal forward at a cost we would never see again," Lundsted said.


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Mark Foecking January 20, 2009 | 7:09 p.m.

Major broadcasters use transmitters with vacuum tubes in them. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with them. In fact, they're more rugged in some ways than transistors.

The problem here is that everyone uses different frequencies, to avoid interfering with each other. I wonder how much it would cost to have tunable radios put into emergency vehicles, so that in an emergency they could all tune to one (or a few) common frequencies.

This is part of why ham radio operators can be so effective in an emergency.


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