This is a part 1 of a multi-part series. Links to subsequents parts are below.
During a Houston fire, firemen were forced to use hand signals when Motorola’s digital system proved unreliable.
This is the first of a multi part investigative series on Niagara County’s new “Emergency Radio Communications System”.
The Reporter plans to examine the roles of county officials, elected and appointed, a Pittsburg consultant and a Syracuse lawyer, both hired by the county, and a faction of first responders and others.
At the dispatch end, we will examine the role of the 2-way radio king, Motorola Solutions Inc., of Schaumberg, Ill.
Motorola managed a entire network of people through various channels, at whatever frequency was needed to interconnect and transmit to themselves a lucrative contract, sold, conceived, approved, designed, built, maintained, resupplied, and sold and up-sold again.
The series will examine behind the scenes the course of business – as money interests intertwined with public interests and as the project comes online, we will attempt to evaluate whether Niagara County reaped the benefits it was promised or, as is so often the case in other localities, this is another deal where Motorola seems to have alone profited.
Niagara County’s new emergency radio communications system is expected to go “live” in June or July.
Reported as a $10 million project, the system’s true cost has not been published.
On April 29, the Reporter filed a Freedom of Information request with the clerk of the Niagara County Legislature, Mary Jo Tamburlin, for all contracts associated with the emergency radio project.
Based on estimates of reported cost overruns, consultant and legal fees, and Motorola’s reported contract price, the system cost at least $11 million and, if change orders, maintenance, rentals and other expenses are similar to other Motorola projects, the final cost may be substantially more.
An FCC Mandate?
In Niagara County, the stated goal of the new emergency radio system was declared to be undertaken to comply with the FCC’s “narrowbanding” mandate which requires 2-way radio licensees to reduce bandwidth to a narrower (weaker) signal.
The purpose of the mandate, the FCC declared, was to reduce congestion on UHF and VHF frequency bands.
Whether public or private, 2-way radio systems were ordered to migrate from bandwidths of, typically, 25 kHz to a narrower 12.5 kHz or its equivalent efficiency.
The deadline was set for Jan. 1, 2013.
The deadline missed, Niagara County applied for and was granted extensions from the FCC.
The simple change to narrower bandwidth was not what made Niagara County late by two years and five months and counting.
The county melded narrowbanding with a plan to combine every public safety division in the cities, towns and villages in Niagara County, along with Niagara County’s public safety departments, into one unified Motorola designed digital system.
Each independent department would abandon their analog systems and their scores of dedicated channels and share a pool of far lesser channels that Motorola would arrange to help provide.
To be clear — the main cost of Niagara County’s Emergency Radio Communications system was not FCC narrowbanding, but the merger of all public safety’s 2-way radio communications into a single digital Motorola system to be used with top of the line Motorola 2-way radios.
Digital Trunked System Promises Better Communications, New Radios
The system, a microwave network with Motorola radio transmitters on seven radio towers strategically located throughout the county and linked to a dispatch center and a backup center replete with top of the line Motorola equipment.
The system does comply with the FCC narrowbanding mandate and in addition promises, as all Motorola ‘trunked’ digital systems do, the ability of radio users on the system to be able to speak directly to any other user regardless of agency or department.
Called “interoperability,” it is perhaps infrequently used except in times of crisis when coordination among first responders can be of paramount importance.
The second feature, one that Motorola contracted to provide, was 2-way radio reception with 95 percent reliability over 95 percent of the land area of Niagara County which, if realized, is greater than the county enjoys collectively with its various analog radio channels.
Finally, as a sweetener, Niagara County purchased from Motorola, at, reportedly, a cost of about $2 million some 1850 top of the line 2-way Motorola radios.
Normally sold to governments for $5,000 each, Motorola discounted them to not much more than $1,000 each.
County legislators made these available as gifts to every public safety employee whose agency or department joined the new Motorola system.
Not every department wanted to join.
Lockport Fire Chief Thomas J. Passuite said his fire radios could be bought into compliance with narrowbanding for $3,500.
Lockport Police Chief Lawrence M. Eggert said his department could comply with FCC narrowbanding for $21,900.
Eggert apparently understood that by selling $5,000 list price radios for $1000, Motorola ensured future sales. In five years or so, when the typical 2-way radio is ready for replacement, Eggert knew his department would have to buy new ones at a price 10 times higher than the $500 narrowbanding compliant 2-way analog radios cost.
The Lockport City Council – under mounting pressure from county officials – overruled Eggert and Passuite’s analog plans – and voted that their police and fire departments must join the county system and accept the gift of Motorola radios – estimated to have a replacement value of $425,000.
Now the Niagara County digital system is, according to County Manager Jeffrey Glatz, essentially finished.
Whether it will achieve the promised 95 percent coverage goals may take some time to determine.
Motorola has Digital Troubles and ‘Shady Dealings’ in Other Cities
In other municipalities, background noise, garbled transmissions and dead spots inside of buildings have plagued Motorola digital systems and some have failed to achieve the 95 percent coverage and 95 percent reliability Motorola appeared to have promised.
In fact, problems with Motorola digital systems are so fully documented that some readers may be surprised that Niagara County officials did not address this publicly before buying a Motorola digital system.
“Fire departments in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Phoenix and Boise, Idaho — communities that have spent tens of millions of dollars on the new equipment — are so leery of problems that they won’t use digital radios at fire scenes,” reports McClatchy DC News, a publication of the McClatchy Company, owners of Knight Ridder and 30 daily newspapers in 15 states, in a story that was part of an investigative series on Motorola’s business practices, published in 2011.
The McClatchy series prompted the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, John Roth, to order an audit to determine whether federal grant money has bankrolled biased contract awards to Motorola.
There are reports, easily found online, published in newspapers across the nation, many of which were available to Niagara County lawmakers when they were considering contracting with Motorola in 2010-2011, that suggest Motorola’s cozy dealings with government officials were something to be wary of.
Dozens of shady dealings with officials of various government agencies were alleged that led to Motorola getting questionable no bid contracts then adding change orders, as they did in DuPage County Ill., where a $7 million, no-bid contract wound up costing more than $28 million.
In Many Places Motorola’s Digital Systems Have Failed
There are as many reports that suggest Motorola’s digital 2-way emergency radios and digital communications systems – like the one Niagara County purchased – have a troubled history.
The City of Chicago, as the Chicago Tribune reported in 2011, spent nearly $23 million on a no-bid Motorola digital radio deal in 2006 for their fire department, “that still doesn’t work after more than five years”.
The Tribune reported that firefighters continue to use their 50-year-old analog radio system.
Chicago Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff told the Tribune that “digital radios have been problematic for fire departments in big cities across the country.”
McClatchy reported that Motorola’s “digital radios’ shortcomings are so widely known that they’ve acquired nicknames. There’s the ‘digital cliff,’ when a radio is out of range and the connection ends without warning. There’s ‘bonking’ — also dubbed ‘the sound of death’ by some Philadelphia firefighters — when an important transmission gets rejected because too many other radios are using the system. Then there’s ‘going digital,’ when a radio emits a garble of beeps and tones instead of a voice.”
Failures of Motorola’s digital radios were blamed in part for two firefighter deaths in Philadelphia, two in Cincinnati and one, on April 16, 2007, when a Woodbridge, Va., firefighter died in the line of duty.
The Prince William County Department of Fire Rescue concluded that the county’s Motorola digital trunked radio system contributed to the tragedy.
And Motorola reached settlements for undisclosed sums with the families of the two dead Philadelphia firefighters.
In Hamilton County, Ohio, after some $35 million was spent on a new Motorola digital trunked system, a 2008 fire erupted in suburban Cincinnati.
Firefighters Robin Broxterman and Brian Schira perished there after they repeatedly tried to summon help on their Motorola digital radios.
A Colerain Fire Department investigation found that, in a half-hour period, the Motorola trunked system rejected at least 43 attempted communications by firefighters, some of them because 22 agencies and 75 nonparticipants monitoring the event tied up space on the system.
Broxterman’s parents, Donald and Arlene Zang, sued Motorola but lost.
The Zang’s did not sue on the premise that Motorola’s digital trunked system was defective, but that digital trunked systems in general are inferior to analog systems for firefighting.
While the court did not rule on Zang’s argument that a digital system is inferior to analog, the court reasoned that Motorola cannot be held liable for supplying an inferior product, since it was in compliance with what the buyer, Hamilton County, wanted.
More Problems in Ontario, Orlando, Houston
Closer to home, the Niagara Regional Police in Ontario, which converted from analog to a Motorola digital system, had problems with dispatch failures in 2012 and, after repeated failures, the Ministry of Labour had to intervene demanding the department identify the problem for the immediate safety of workers.
In Orlando Fla, for years digital garbling and unintelligible transmissions made the Fire Department’s Motorola digital system worthless.
Firefighters continued to use their old analog radios.
Ultimately, according to Deputy Chief Greg Hoggatt, the digital system was righted and the department is now 100 percent digital.
But problems in other cities continue.
Jeff Caynon, the president of Houston’s firefighters’ union, said problems with Motorola’s $140 million digital system, completed in 2013, forced rescuers to resort during a blaze in May 2013 to use “hand and arm signals and cell phones as a reliable way to communicate.”
As recently as January, Houston’s Fire Department was still having problems with Motorola digital radios – having to frequently discard useless but expensive Motorola digital 2-way radios.
“It compromises the safety of firefighters at emergency incidents,” Captain Ruy Lozano, of the Houston Fire Department, told ABC News in January 2015.
Which brings us back to Niagara County.
Will Niagara County’s Motorola digital system work?
There are certainly cases where Motorola digital systems do work.
Although the successes seem to be a little harder to find on internet searches.
Motorola has Checkered Dealings with Local Governments
So how did it come about that a system with a track record of flaws was pushed through with hardly a word of discussion?
This is a topic that should be explored in depth.
Motorola secured a contract for Niagara County’s digital 2-way business in a way that parallels what the company did in dozens of other municipalities and several states.
In Chicago, Dallas, the San Francisco Bay Area and on statewide systems in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas and Washington, Motorola has been accused of irregularities or of winning contracts through government favoritism.
In the San Francisco Bay Area a $50 million deal imploded when investigators for the Commerce Department’s inspector general’s office concluded that a grant application had “significant misrepresentations.”
A McClatchy survey of the largest cities in America show that Motorola won 20 of 22 contracts – about half of the time these were no bid awards.
In some municipalities Motorola has been accused of deploying sales staff whose primary tasks is to counsel government officials on how to skirt public bidding laws, something Motorola spokesmen have denied.
Similarities Between Niagara County and Other Municipalities and Motorola
Ironically Niagara County sought to hand Motorola a no bid contract.
The Republican majority on the legislature was ready to vote on a $22 million no bid Motorola contract until it was scuttled, at the 11th hour, not by the savvy resolve of cost conscious legislators but through dumb luck.
Only Minority Leader Dennis Virtuoso called for an RFP and open bidding, but he was ignored.
In many localities Motorola has been accused of winning RFP’s through the aid of friendly government officials and their hired consultants who craft the RFP’s to ensure Motorola wins.
In Niagara County, after several strokes of the most extraordinary dumb luck, to be detailed in a subsequent story, an RFP was crafted by the county’s consultant and bids were solicited, much to the credit of certain elected officials – whose desire for the public good, as opposed to Motorola’s, was evident.
But there were some who were ostensibly working, or contracted to work, for the county who, for reasons to be examined, appeared to be working behind the scenes to aid Motorola.
As readers will see next week, Niagara County was accused of writing an RFP that not only favored Motorola but literally excluded any competitor from having a chance at winning the contract, and this, we submit, is based on standards that, once reviewed by competent experts, will reveal themselves for what they were intended to be.