About five years after York County completed a $44 million overhaul of its 911 radio communications system, county commissioners on Wednesday committed to spending another $25 million to make a frequency change that was mandated by the federal government a few years after the county finished its project.
The switch to a different bandwidth was a recommendation from a federal commission formed after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The group said emergency radio communications were ineffective, so Congress passed a provision through which agencies using a bandwidth known as T-Band must turn over their bandwidth to the Federal Communications Commission and join a different bandwidth allocated just to public safety.
For York County, that means spending a total of about $27 million to buy new radios and make other costly system changes, said Eric Bistline, director of the York County Department of Emergency Services.
Congress authorized an auction of existing bandwidths owned by counties and other agencies to pay for some of the costs they'll incur to make the switch, Bistline said, but it's not clear when or how much money will be reimbursed to York County, Bistline said.
Contracts: Commissioners on Wednesday approved four contracts related to the switch, the largest contract being a $20.6 million agreement under which Harris Corp. of Virginia will move the county's radio communications into the new system.
The other contracts are a $3.1 million deal with Alcatel-Lucent of Texas to upgrade a microwave system, a $119,800 contract with New Jersey-based Kova Corp. to provide maintenance, and a $1.2 million contract with Safety, Security and Communications Consultants of Maryland for project management and other services.
Bistline said the projects weren't sent to bid because they fall under exceptions for proprietary work and professional services.
Vice president Commissioner Doug Hoke asked whether Bistline was sure the contracts were good deals or whether the county should bid the work. President Commissioner Steve Chronister said there was no way to tell if the county is getting a deal because there were no other proposals with which to compare. But Bistline said the county would save money on the largest contract because Harris installed the existing radio system and can use many of that system's components as building blocks. Another company might have to start from scratch, he said.
Harris also offered a discount to lock into the work now, and going with a different vendor would've nearly doubled the cost of the $20 million portion of the required work, he said.
Bistline said signing the contract now also assured the county it would be "first in line" to lock in a new frequency before there becomes a scarcity.
Being geographically so close to major urban centers such as Baltimore and Philadelphia limits the number of available frequencies, he said.
Timeline: While commissioners complained about the cost and had hoped to avoid replacement of a system that was still relatively new, Bistline said Wednesday there's no way around the federal law.
Chronister said the county was mandated to make the switch, and commissioners unanimously approved all of the contracts.
Bistline said the work must be completed by 2019, when the government will take back the bandwidths currently being used. The radio project will start in March and run 41 months, with completion and a new system launch expected in summer 2017.
The life expectancy of the current radio system is 10 to 15 years, Bistline said, and it will be 10.5 years old at the time the new system launches.
New radios must also be distributed to the municipal emergency organizations that are the radio system's "end users," Bistline said. Commissioners agreed to temporarily pay for all of those radios and revisit the issue at a later date.
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