Trust can be hard to come by when it comes to Deschutes County’s new law enforcement radio system. The $5.5 million digital system has not performed as county government or police expected.
Deschutes County commissioners are taking steps to rebuild that trust. But have they held the system contractor, Harris Corp., or county employees accountable?
Consider this: county 911 employees and Harris staff tested the system after it went live last summer. In Bend, they declared the system was near perfect. That has not been anywhere near the experience of law enforcement. Bend police later alleged the system was so poor it put officers’ lives at risk.
So what the heck happened? Was the testing phony? Why should law enforcement and the public trust what the county and Harris come up with now?
To understand what happened with that testing, you have to go back to last summer. The new system was switched on.
Representatives from Deschutes County 911 and Harris Corp. divided the county up into sectors — “service area test tiles.” They drove around and tested the performance of the radio system. For instance, there were more than 50 sectors in the Bend area, according to documents we obtained from 911.
Digital radio quality can be tested in different ways. The county and Harris used a subjective scale called delivered audio quality. It’s ranked from 1 to 5. A 1.0 is unusable. A 5.0 is perfect. Quality could have been measured on a nonsubjective scale, which tests bit error rate. The county failed to ask for that.
The quality standard for a public safety radio system is 3.4. That is subjectively defined as speech understandable with repetition only rarely required, some noise and distortion. The county’s contract and testing documents actually called for a system below that public safety standard, a 3.0. A 3.0 system is described as speech understandable with slight effort with occasional repetition required due to noise and distortion. Deschutes County Commissioners Tammy Baney and Tony DeBone, who were on the commission when the system was made, say that 3.0/3.4 distinction was never made clear to them.
On June 28 and 29 last year, the testing was done for Bend. Harris and the 911 testers rated the system at 4.5 almost everywhere in Bend. Deschutes County had only paid for a 3.0 but received a 4.5 in Bend! It must have been a great, self-affirming finding for both the county employees and Harris. Nobody apparently questioned that it might be too good to be true.
Based on those excellent results in Bend, similar scores in Redmond and solid testing results in other parts of the county, Deschutes County officially formally accepted delivery of the system. It made the final contract payment to Harris.
Complaints, though, started pouring in from law enforcement. If there was a hotbed of complaints, it was in Bend. Bend police officers alleged to the state in December that the system was operating so poorly that it was creating a dangerous workplace.
How does that make sense with a system rated by Harris and the county as a 4.5?
County commissioners have pointed out that the number of complaints by law enforcement have died down. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the system has improved. Bend Police Chief Jim Porter said the problems are still there. It’s just his officers have grown tired of taking the time to make reports after not seeing improvement.
The county is taking good steps to build back trust. The good news is that the county doesn’t have to rip out its $5.5 million system to improve it. It more than likely has to put up more towers. There’s no calculation yet of what that will cost.
The county has kicked off an effort to study the existing system and measure its performance. It is getting feedback to try to match expectations from the police and possible future users — the county’s fire departments. It ordered maps from Harris showing modeling of where the county should have different levels of coverage.
Commissioner Tony DeBone says the commission also wants to incorporate the objective bit error rate standard into any new testing. And he told us commissioners are going to require new testing is overseen by an independent observer — not like when it was just Harris and 911.
But have county commissioners held Harris or 911 employees accountable for test results saying the system in Bend was near perfect? The then-911 director has left. The 911 employees had never installed a new digital radio system before. Harris has no such excuse. What’s the explanation from Harris? Why hasn’t the county demanded one?