It was hard to believe it when Deschutes County law enforcement officials recently expressed optimism that the persistent problems with the county’s new $5 million 911 digital radio system will soon be resolved. County officials and the radio system contractor Harris have been saying that since December.

All of the county’s law enforcement agencies are now using the new radio system. It’s been about a year since the system came online and the county made the final payment for it. County officials promised it would improve coverage and coverage in buildings. And do you know what the critical, persistent problem is? Dropped coverage, particularly in buildings. The last thing anyone wants is for police officers or sheriff’s deputies to lose communication.

When will it be fixed?

On Dec. 21, Harris engineer Phil Roland was asked when the system would be fixed, during a meeting about the system’s problems. He did not commit to a specific timeline but suggested “it may happen in the next couple of weeks,” according to meeting minutes.

That theme repeats. In January, the city of Bend asked the county for help in responding to a complaint about the system filed with the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration by Bend police officers. The due date for Bend’s response was Jan. 19.

“As you likely know, the radio system vendor, Harris, has flown in an engineering strike team to local and repair the problem(s),” County Attorney David Doyle wrote. “My understanding is that the strike team has already made great progress and is hopeful that the entire matter will be resolved soon, and certainly prior to the due date for a response to a OSHA.”

Nope, it wasn’t resolved soon. To the county’s credit, once the seriousness of the issue was made clear to county commissioners, they demanded action from Harris and answers from their own staff. But commissioners still have not completed two important steps identified half a year ago.

County Commissioner Tammy Baney made an excellent suggestion in December that the county hire a firm to review what led to the county to purchase a system that failed to meet expectations. The county has not hired that firm.

The second unfilled gap is engineering expertise. When the system’s problems arose, officials with the city of Bend asked 911 to add engineering expertise to be able to act as a bridge between law enforcement users and the contractor, Harris. The answer was no.

In a Jan. 4 meeting, it was specifically recommended that the 911 district hire a full-time engineer. Then-911 director Steve Reinke “stated it wouldn’t be financially feasible for the district to have a full-time engineer on-site,” according to the meeting minutes.

The next day Reinke, who has since left the position, changed his tune. He sent out an email saying: “The District is open to all options, including additional staff at whatever level is required if that’s recommended as the best option.” Only after complaints mounted did the county bring on a temporary engineering contractor. It has not been able to fill the full-time position.

With the benefit of hindsight, it can be unfairly easy to point out mistakes made by the county. But the county has also been guilty of over-confidence and over-promising. Deschutes County residents need to keep pressure on the elected commissioners to get the radio system fixed. Candidates running for commission seats in the November election need to be asked what they plan to do about it. Nobody should assume it will be fixed by November.

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