Debut of new DuPage emergency radio network is delayed — again

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After four years of delays, officials in charge of updating DuPage County's emergency radio network declared in December 2010 that they finally had reached a solution with Motorola to have a new system running within a year.

But instead of a modern radio network, all the DuPage Emergency Telephone System Board will have when that deadline passes Thursday is its familiar refrain: Wait till next year.

"The original timetable we had was aggressive. All things being perfect, it would have worked, but we had unforeseen things come up," said Pat O'Shea, chairman of the emergency telephone board. "Hopefully, by the end of next year, we'll have it up and running."

As Motorola's contract with the county drags into its sixth year, most of DuPage's emergency responders continue to use the same antiquated radio systems instead of an updated network that meets federal guidelines instituted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

In January, the Tribune reported that the $7 million contract DuPage first signed with Motorola in September 2006 had more than quadrupled in cost.

That original contract — funded through fees on land line and cellphone users' bills — called for the Schaumburg-based telecommunications giant to build a new nine-tower, five-channel radio network in 10 months.

It never happened.

Instead, long delays and rising costs flowed from the deal, which DuPage officials had justified as exempt from competitive bids and hastily signed despite objections from the county's 32 mayors and city managers, the Tribune found.

Officials in charge of the emergency telephone board at the time said no bids were needed because the project was covered by an earlier state master contract for a different radio network Motorola built for the Illinois State Police. But the Tribune's review of records found that state contract did not include much of the infrastructure — such as towers, transmitters and receivers — the county needed to build a network.

The need for a revamped radio network stems from regulations passed after 9/11 that urge emergency responders to use "interoperable" systems — ones that have the capability to communicate with multiple departments.

As DuPage's effort to build such a system became mired in delays, other suburbs considered a wider array of options. While most of the county's emergency agencies signed on to be covered under DuPage's Motorola deal, Naperville joined with neighboring Aurora in 2009 to build its network.

The two cities accepted bids from radio vendors, with Virginia-based Harris Corp. winning with an offer that was $10 million less than Motorola's. Harris completed the network in January after 18 months.

DuPage, now 62 months into its contract with Motorola, never approached other radio providers.

O'Shea said that after he took over the board two years ago, he immediately determined it was no longer affordable for the county to have Motorola build a new network, which he estimated would cost $58 million.

Instead, the emergency telephone board voted in December 2010 to increase the contract to $28 million so the county could rent space on STARCOM21, the existing Motorola network used by state police.

That work was to be finished by Thursday. A Motorola spokesman declined to detail why it would miss its deadline, citing a company policy against discussing ongoing work for a client.

For his part, DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin said he is taking a closer look at how the emergency telephone board operates.

In July, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn traveled to DuPage to sign a bill that Cronin, a Republican, had sought to give counties greater oversight of independent boards and commissions, such as the emergency telephone board. Under the new law, county boards will have access to those agencies' budgets, policies and more.

With new access to that information, Cronin has hired an outside firm to search for savings and improvements within those boards, either through action by the county or new legislation in Springfield.

Cronin said the Emergency Telephone System Board will be "scrutinized with a fine-tooth comb," adding that he's eager to get an independent analysis of the board because of the delays with implementing the new radio network.

"The ETSB is a board that has a lot of money at their disposal, and they operate very independently," he said. "I think it's particularly important we get a good and thorough understanding of the operations there."

O'Shea, a Republican member of the DuPage County Board, said the latest round of delays is the county's fault, not Motorola's.

He blamed "red tape" and delays within DuPage's procurement department, which he said must sign off on any work approved by the emergency telephone board.

For example, O'Shea said the emergency board planned to attach a STARCOM21 antenna to a county-owned public safety tower in Wheaton and build a shelter on-site to house Motorola's equipment.

That work was delayed, O'Shea said, when other county officials wanted to charge the emergency telephone board monthly rent to use the site. They later settled on a deal in which the emergency board would allow the county to store some of its equipment in the building on-site instead of paying rent.

But that work has yet to start, O'Shea said, because it is held up in the county's procurement department. When it is approved, the construction likely will be further delayed, he said, because of winter weather.

"It's always a little more complicated than you think," he said. "It's bureaucratic delays here and there that weren't foreseen originally."

O'Shea said Motorola also still must program the 3,400 radios it sold to the county for about $6,000 each and then train emergency agencies on how to use them.

Once that is completed, he said, the county will have to test the network to "make sure we have the grade of coverage in the entire county that (Motorola) claims we will" before it officially declares the work finished.

Will that happen by this time next year, after what will have been six years of waiting?

"I hope it's sooner than that," O'Shea said, "but I just have no idea."

bruthhart@tribune.com

Twitter: @BillRuthhart

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