What’s stopping Utah’s first responders from getting new radios? Two industry giants are fighting over the $50 million contract.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Utah’s emergency communications may be on the brink of collapse, lending urgency to a planned massive system upgrade. But the project is on hold while two industry giants brawl over the taxpayer-funded contract for new two-way radios and equipment.

Florida-based Harris Corp. won the contract with a bid of some $50 million — a price that the state says is $30 million below that of the losing bidder, Motorola.

But Motorola, which has supplied Utah’s radios and emergency technology for decades — since before the creation of the Utah Communications Authority (UCA) — is nowhere close to giving up the fight. The Illinois-based company has filed three protests alleging bid-rigging, including “price manipulation.”

UCA, an independent state agency overseeing 911 as well as interagency communications, has rejected each of the protests. But Motorola has now appealed to the state’s Procurement Policy Board. If it loses there, the next step for Motorola would be taking the dispute to the Utah Court of Appeals.

Long the dominant player in the emergency communications industry nationwide as well as in Utah, Motorola also wants to wage this battle in the court of public opinion.

“Imagine dropped calls and dead zones when police officers, firefighters and first responders are trying to communicate during emergencies,” a company spokeswoman said in a statement. “A police officer that can’t be heard when he or she needs backup during an active shooter situation. These are real possibilities when these systems don’t work correctly.”

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) This September 2018 file photo shows Unified Authority firefighters as they prepare to head back out to the fire break line. At that time the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires in Utah and Juab counties had grown to more than 86,000 acres anddisplaced approximately 6,000 people living in the Woodland Hills, Elk Ridge and Covered Bridge communities.

She warned that “UCA intends to move forward with a vendor … who has publicly been plagued with performance issues and lawsuits, risking the safety of Utah citizens and first responders.”

Natalie Ciao, a Harris spokeswoman, told The Salt Lake Tribune the company is well qualified to take on the contract and “believes the procurement process was very professionally organized and run by the book in an unbiased manner.”

Ciao continued, “Harris provided the solution that met [the agency’s] requirements and provided the state with a system that saves the state millions of dollars at a price 30 percent lower.”

The UCA has had its own share of problems in the past — repeated violations of open-meetings and financial-transparency laws that came to light in the wake of a $1 million, 10-year embezzlement scandal. The agency has focused a good deal of energy since then on cleaning up its act to prove to the Legislature it deserved and would appropriately manage millions in new taxpayer dollars.

Dave Edmunds, the UCA director hired in 2017 to help turn the agency around, declined to comment for this story. “My attorneys have instructed me not to speak about that,” he told The Tribune.

But during a December meeting where the bid winner was announced and unanimously approved by the UCA board, Edmunds said that while he had “zero doubt” that both bidding companies were up to the job, Harris’ price made the difference.

Motorola “did have a slightly higher score on the technical side,” Edmunds acknowledged, but Harris became the clear-cut winner because of the $30 million in cost savings.

“We had been told repeatedly and for years that this P25 radio upgrade was going to cost the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. And I think at the end of the day probably the biggest winner here is the Utah state taxpayer, who is going to get a highly functional system for around $50 million,” Edmunds said, according to audio of the meeting.

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Utah Communications Authority executive director David Edmunds talks during a legislative committee hearing in the House Building, Feb. 2, 2017.

One of the grounds for Motorola’s protests are its assertions that UCA failed to take into account tens of millions of dollars in discounts it offered that would drop its bid from $90 million to $63 million.

UCA has concluded that it couldn’t count most of the offered discounts because of strings attached.

Edmunds said he is confident in the UCA contract award and will address concerns as the final agreement is negotiated. “We will hold their [Harris'] feet to the fire,” he said, at the same time stressing the importance of replacing Utah’s aging system. “We have really been on the edge of a system that is at the end of life and, potentially, at the verge of collapse."

The agency has resorted to buying replacement parts on eBay because they’re not available from any manufacturer. And soon the existing equipment will be out of compliance with federal requirements.

“So we knew going in that this was going to be the most important thing that this organization did for the next 20 years,” Edmunds said. “And we gave it that kind of weight and that kind of attention.”

UCA’s outside attorney Jason Boren also pointed to legal constraints on talking to The Tribune about the bid protests. When told of Motorola’s warnings about the possibly deadly consequences of a mistake in switching suppliers, he responded: “That’s unbelievable.”

But it really isn’t anything out of the ordinary for the two sworn corporate enemies who have what the Miami Herald has characterized as a “blood feud."

“Think Hatfields and McCoys, Sharks and Jets — and Harris Corp. and Motorola Solutions,” the Herald wrote.

Motorola sent The Tribune links to several news stories detailing problems with Harris’ technology. One from PennLive carried the headline: “$800 million later, senators want to know ‘what the heck happened’ with statewide radio system” — a project that ended up costing four times what had been originally projected.

Another, from the Las-Vegas Review Journal, recounted two years of dead zones and dropped calls before the city dumped its $42 million system supplied by Harris.

Ciao, the Harris spokeswoman, in turn supplied news articles chronicling Motorola misfires. The company doesn’t normally employ such tactics, she said, unless it is “under fire” by its chief competitor.

Several of the articles involving Motorola centered on the Feb. 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and the confusion and chaos in the law enforcement response that was blamed, at least in part, on the failure of Broward County’s aging emergency radio system.

(Wilfredo Lee | AP file photo) In this Aug. 15, 2018, file photo, a Broward County Sheriff's Office vehicle is parked outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla.

“We simply couldn’t transmit on the radio or receive,” Sheriff’s Lt. Steven O’Neill told the Sun Sentinel newspaper, adding that commanders ended up designating “runners” — officers on foot — to relay messages. A report later commissioned by the state said SWAT officers inside the high school could not use their radios to communicate with officers outside who had rifles pointed at the building.

The McClatchy News Service, in a multipart series in 2015, detailed problems with emergency radio systems nationwide and explored Motorola’s decades-long domination of the multibillion-dollar business.

Motorola has locked up as much as 80 percent of the taxpayer-funded emergency communications market nationally. But Harris, which is in the midst of merging with military communications giant L3, anticipates more than doubling its revenues, from $6 billion to $16 billion.

The scrappy newcomer has been the bid protester in other contracts — like an FBI communications upgrade in which Motorola was originally awarded a $500 million sole-source deal that was later abandoned and rebid. Harris still protested, alleging the $200 million request for proposal was biased in favor of Motorola.

Among Harris’ Utah clients — some of them former Motorola customers — are The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Hill Air Force Base and the Unified Fire Authority, said Ciao. “This isn’t our first rodeo in the state.”

Motorola has its fans — some of them concerned about the risk of switching to a new supplier.

Former Rep. Brad Dee, who considers himself one of the fathers of the UCA and who was employed by the agency as a lobbyist in 2017, said he has been hearing concerns and unanswered questions from local officials “all over the state ... from Rich County to Washington County.”

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune file photo) In this Feb. 24, 2016, file photo, Rep, Brad Dee, R-Ogden, talks with lobbyists outside the House chamber about his bill, HB380, Utah Communications Authority Amendments.

The fear? That radios from a different manufacturer won’t be able to connect with the old radios.

“I don’t care how good your radio is. I don’t care how many bells and whistles you put on it. If I can’t push that button and talk to somebody, it’s no good to me,” Dee said.

“I just know that ... the state has worked with Motorola for as long as I’ve been around and the systems that they worked with," Dee said. “I’ve looked at what Harris radios have done and I’ve done a little research on Harris radio and I looked up some of the problems they have in certain areas in the United States.”

He said he had no financial ties to Motorola, which a company spokeswoman confirmed.

“I’m not speaking just for Brad Dee, who watched this thing grow up from a baby. I think I’m speaking for a lot of local public safety officials and local governments that are concerned on how this was handled.”

Dee said he wants to see a “last and best” bid that answers all questions about connectivity and allows the companies to put forward their final bottom-line offers.

Edmunds confirmed during the bid meeting that “we certainly have [heard] from a number of folks that would like to have a best and final cost solicited from them and allow them to submit that.” But agency lawyers have said, under the request for proposals submitted, “there is no provision” for that. Anything outside the request for proposal “could prompt potential chaos.”

He acknowledged that local law enforcement and emergency officials are “afraid their radios won’t work."

“What we can tell you is this: One of the reasons we’re migrating to P25 [radios] is that will allow all P25 radios, regardless of your manufacturer, to come and work and conduct business on this system," Edmunds assured his board. "There is no empirical data to support those concerns and assertions that I’ve heard — at least to this juncture.”

Wayne Harper is the state Senate counterpart to Dee — a lawmaker who has long overseen the UCA and sponsored most of the legislation affecting it.

He doesn’t share Dee’s concerns.

“The process followed was absolutely correct," Harper said. "You’ve got two good companies; one is thrilled they got the contract, and the other is upset, and they’re doing what they can to get a second hearing.

“My goal is to make sure that the first responders have the support that they need and the public has the confidence that when they call 911, their calls will be answered and emergency responders dispatched as quickly as possible.”

Harper said he is comfortable that will happen with Harris radios.