Utah agency moves to cut $50M deal for new first responder radios to avert a system breakdown

(AP Photo/Dave Collins) In this Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016 photo, a radio in a police cruiser sits between the front seats in Naugatuck, Conn. Utah has also long used Motorola radios for first responders, but recently the state has entered contract negotiations with Harris Corp., leading to a legal battle.

The urgent need to replace aging and increasingly obsolete police and firefighter two-way radios in Utah has prompted the state’s head of emergency communications to start negotiations on a $50 million contract even as a losing bidder has gone to court to block the deal.

Motorola Solutions, the longtime supplier of Utah’s emergency radios, has protested the bid awarded to competitor Harris Corp. by raising allegations of bid-rigging and procurement irregularities. Those protests were rejected first by the agency in charge of the project — the Utah Communications Authority (UCA) — and earlier this month by the state Procurement Policy Board.

Now the Chicago-based company has taken its dispute to the Utah Court of Appeals. Company spokeswoman Kathy VanBuskirk, contacted Thursday, had no comment.

Normally, the ongoing bid protest would keep the project on hold — as it has since December. But UCA Executive Director Dave Edmunds has issued a written determination that finalizing the contract without further delay is in the best interest of the state.

“UCA is rapidly approaching a time when replacement parts and equipment will simply be unavailable and, despite the best efforts of UCA and its expert technicians, the current radio system will begin to fail, compromising coverage for public safety agencies across the state," Edmunds wrote in his April 9 order unfreezing contract negotiations. “Indeed, after a piece of existing Motorola equipment recently failed, leaving a number of public safety answering points without service, Motorola itself stated that the equipment had outlived its lifespan and that Motorola could no longer supply the part.”

Asked for additional details on that breakdown, Edmunds said in a statement that it occurred in central Utah and prevented some call centers from communicating with first responders using radio consoles. “Operators were able to rely on backup radios during the pendency of the outage, which lasted less than an hour.”

Although it was short-lived and there was backup communication available, he said, "the outage highlights the need to move forward with a new system to reduce future outages and ensure replacement components are available for timely repairs.”

Since Motorola stopped making the older radios or supplying parts for them years ago, UCA has been forced to keep the system going with parts purchased on eBay. And Edmunds has previously described Utah’s first-responder radio system as “potentially at the verge of collapse."

The P25 radio network that Utah intends to purchase offers several benefits, including a doubling of the network capacity and a broader range of compatibility that allows for purchase of radios from different manufacturers at competitive prices.

Full implementation of the upgrade is expected to take several years and with seasonal considerations — UCA radio towers throughout the state are erected on mountaintops that can be inaccessible in winter — Edmunds said timing is “critical.”

The first order of business is for the agency to seal the deal with Harris, a Florida-based company that has been aggressive in recent years attempting to cut into Motorola’s 80-percent market share.

It will be a big switch for UCA, which has relied on Motorola as its supplier for more than two decades. The transition to a new vendor has had its critics, including from some local public safety departments that have raised questions about the bid process.

Former state Rep. Brad Dee, who was the sponsor of much of the legislation over the years creating UCA and overseeing its operations, told The Salt Lake Tribune that a number of local governments and first response agencies “are concerned on how this was handled.”

One of the questions raised was whether UCA put too much emphasis on price and too little on technical aspects. Motorola had an edge in its technical bid score but lost out because of what UCA said was a $30 million savings from the Harris offer.

Motorola protested that those calculations ignored its offers of several discounts, which would have narrowed that price gap to a few million dollars. The company also complained about several other factors, including that Harris had failed to properly disclose litigation in other markets.

Dee echoed those concerns and called for a “last and best” bid to settle lingering questions about equipment compatibility and bottom-line price.

Edmunds earlier confirmed to his board that he had been contacted by a number of local agencies “afraid their radios won’t work." But he said there was no empirical basis for those fears and one of the most attractive features of the new system is its compatibility with radios from multiple manufacturers.

The UCA director acknowledged there are no guarantees about how Motorola’s appeal will turn out in court, but added, “the risks of further delaying this critical system outweigh that minimal risk.”