A consultant’s report is out, and it’s highly critical of efforts to fix problems with a $5 million digital radio system implemented by Deschutes County’s 911 service district.
The new system’s problematic early days and the length of time it took to resolve a “magnitude of communications issues” led the report’s authors, Trott Communications Group of Irving, Texas, to conclude that the switch to digital was “a failed effort” when it began nearly two years ago.
The report was received last week by the Deschutes County Commission, the district’s governing body.
Of the numerous issues experienced with the Harris radio system — including lack of testing, user training and radios being improperly programed — only three were addressed in the district’s purchase contract with Harris, a contract the report called “exceptionally weak.”
On July 27, 2017, the police and fire agencies that comprise the local 911 service district flipped the switch on a new P25 radio system.
Designed and installed by Florida-based Harris Corp., it was intended to replace an aging analog system and add to a recently completed statewide communications “backbone” installed by the Oregon Department of Transportation.
Almost immediately, officers complained about a variety of issues, including dropped calls, garbled audio and erratic volume.
One officer on a foot chase in downtown Bend reported she was unable to contact dispatch.
On Dec. 7 of that year, chiefs signed a “Concern Letter” to Deschutes 911 and its former director Steve Reinke. Two weeks later, the Bend Police officers union filed a complaint with Oregon’s OSHA program, citing a “complete outage” of the system that day.
In January 2018, after The Bulletin and other outlets began reporting on BPD’s complaints, Harris dedicated extra resources to resolving and stabilizing the system, according to the Trott report.
The report states the county and Harris failed to competently administer the contract as written. Two radio towers recommended in an earlier engineering report were eventually deferred from the radio project without adjusting the contract. Other items in the contract were overlooked or rushed without “proper due diligence.”
“The contract allowed numerous errors and oversights to occur during implementation and failed to adequately protect Deschutes County and the system stakeholders,” the report reads.
Commissioner Tony DeBone said in the future, the county’s legal department should play a greater role in drafting large contracts involving complex technology.
“We need a tight contract with clear deliverables,” DeBone said. “And the county has those resources at its disposal.”
One example of a contract error involves the matter of mobile vs portable radio design. Harris’ repeatedly insisted the Deschutes County radio system was designed for mobile radios, not portables, when this isn’t the case, according to the Trott report.
“The claim is not supported by the contract documents,” the report reads.
Both types of radios are used by agencies in Deschutes County.
Portable radios operate at lower power levels and therefore provide different coverage.
Because the district’s contract with Harris lacked a coverage guarantee, Deschutes 911 was unable to hold Harris accountable, the report reads.
Bend Police Chief Jim Porter confirmed that his officers face far fewer problems with the Harris radio system. He said one of the most important fixes occurred when Deschutes 911 added a director position to oversee technology.
Will Mullins was hired for the job in October.
“He has made a world of difference,” Porter said of Mullins. “He really knows radio.”
The Trott after-action report will be discussed at the upcoming meeting of the agency heads in the Deschutes 911 district.
Though delayed several times, a number of fire agencies, including Bend Fire Department are expected to migrate to the Harris system in April.
— Reporter: 541-383-0325, firstname.lastname@example.org