For all the problems with Deschutes County’s new, multimillion-dollar digital radio system, did the county at least get what it paid for?
The short answer: We can’t tell you. The county says for public safety reasons it doesn’t want to release the documents to help the public better understand the county’s public safety problem.
The long answer follows.
Deschutes County commissioners were in a great mood in March 2016 over the contract they authorized for a new radio system for all the county’s emergency responders.
Steve Reinke, director of Deschutes County 911, told commissioners the system would be a big improvement. There would be better coverage across the county, “including in dense concrete and steel buildings.” Reinke added: “It will provide remarkable coverage compared to what’s in place today.”
But the system has been remarkably awful. Dropped signals. Garbled transmissions. Wildly varying volume levels. It got so bad that the system went down completely one day in December. It got so bad that Bend police officers filed a workplace complaint with the state. The system can be a threat to public safety, though it may still be fixed.
Last week, commissioners met with representatives from the principal contractor, Harris Corp. Commissioners had given Harris 30 days to get the system working right. The Harris contract was for about $4 million of the projected $5.8 million project cost.
The meeting was striking in a number of ways. Harris and Motorola Corp. are the Coke and Pepsi of digital radio systems in the country. Harris came out with what seemed like a petty swipe at Motorola shoulder microphones used by some on the new system, including the Bend Police Department, saying the Motorola microphones weren’t good enough.
More important was the apparent disagreement about what level of system the county bought. Harris described tiers of systems quality. A lower tier would be a mobile system designed to optimize coverage when police officers were using their powerful car radios. A step up would optimize the system for portable radios. Another step up would be for in-building coverage. Harris said the county bought a mobile system, though the portable radios should still work well. It kicked off a discussion.
It is not at all what Reinke described to commissioners in March 2016. When we requested the documents in the contract to show what kind of coverage the county ordered, we were told the county would have to get permission from Harris to release them. Then we were told that county counsel recommended that the documents not be released, anyway, due to security concerns. Reinke did tell us Tuesday that the Harris maps predicted better coverage than what the county had under the old system.
If there is good news in the county’s digital radio saga, Harris and the county’s 911 staff say they are fully committed to getting the system to work. Harris said at the county meeting it wants to make its customer “happy.”
So Deschutes County residents, are you happy with a multimillion-dollar radio system that county law enforcement worry is not good enough?