Officials with the Mobile County Communications District believe “clashing personalities” may be to blame for a nearly three-month delay in the implementation of a $40 million communications project — creating an impasse some have described as a “urination contest.”
The P25 Phase II radio system, which is currently being constructed by Harris Corp. and Hurricane Electronics, has been criticized for initially including “unwanted” and “unnecessary” components that were later removed.
The same contract also prompted an internal investigation resulting in the termination of former MCCD Director Gary Tanner.
A renegotiation of parts of Harris’ contract ultimately brought the cost of the project down close to $5 million, but additional training and equipment implementation included in those negotiations pushed back the target date for completion from next month to January 2017.
While the installation of individual radios continues, a consultant working for MCCD said the project has “slowed down bigtime” because Mobile County’s electronics department has been hesitant to turn over information related to the current radio system used by first responders.
“The users wanted to have the same format going into the new system so they don’t have to retrain their officers and firefighters. It would make the transition easier,” Jeya Selvaratnam of Tusa Consulting told board members last week. “Harris planned on implementing the project based on that format, but they also want permission [from the county] to share that information.”
A long-time county contractor, Harris has an existing nondisclosure agreement with the county and cannot release the information MCCD needs without expressed permission. However, obtaining permission has proven tricky and is testing relationships that have already been somewhat strained.
Mobile County Engineer Joe Ruffer oversees the electronics department, but he was also an MCCD board member for more than three decades. Another county employee, Eric Linsley, also worked closely with MCCD and Harris on the current project.
But since March 2015, Ruffer resigned from the board and Linsley — dragged into the public eye during the investigation of the Harris contract — has ceased working with MCCD.
Last week, Director Charlie McNichol said the fallout from those changes may be adding to the hurdles MCCD is having to jump through in order to get Harris and Hurricane the authorization they need to proceed with the $40 million project.
“Quite frankly, there are just some personalities that are clashing and it kind of goes back to, if you will, the last year or year and half and what we’ve been doing,” McNichol said. “I’m also not saying it’s the County Commission. I want to be clear that it’s a department within the county. I’m optimistic we’re going to work it out, but it’s just taking some time.”
To resolve the issue, MCCD staff members, county employees and their respective attorneys have been discussing a “memorandum of understanding” behind the scenes. However, there seems to be some confusion about what information the county is being asked to release.
While Selvaratnam and others say the information they need has been freely exchanged in the past and is readily available online, Assistant County Attorney Kevin Boucher said his technicians claim MCCD is asking for proprietary information and releasing it to the wrong person could create “a significant security exposure to the county.”
According to Boucher, the County Commission is prepared to sign off on a memorandum of understanding at its meeting next week.
However, McNichol said even if the agreement he’s seen is approved, it would still need to be “loosened up a little” to be of any use to MCCD.
Considering the possibility of the issue dragging out further, Board President Dr. Stephen Bowden floated an alternate plan: to bypass Harris’ nondisclosure agreement with the county by getting the information directly from the first responders themselves.
“I’m sure there’s no problem with each agency releasing their talk group and frequency information,” he said. “That sounds like the thing to do to me because, I mean, this is just getting all tangled up into some sort of a urinating contest. I think we should proceed on both fronts.”
However, Hurricane Electronics CEO Dirk Young said it might be best to wait and see how things go with the county’s agreement next week. To proceed otherwise, he suggested, would take time and could possibly “stir the pot” even more.
“If you were waiting on an agenda item for next month, I would say let’s start reading radios from each of the agencies, but you’re this close,” Young said. “Once that information is in hand, then all parties concerned can turn the heat up to get this fleet map done. I don’t think you’re going to get with all the agencies by then, anyway.”
Selvaratnam, who is overseeing the project’s implementation, said waiting a week for the county’s decision was a “feasible solution.” However, he said his team and Harris could start putting together a plan to get the information from the first responders directly if the two entities haven’t reached an agreement by next week.
In the meantime, McNichol told Lagniappe the delay has been “unfortunate” and “should have been avoided.” While the issue has no doubt already cost time, McNichol said, it is too early to know if the three-month delay will cost MCCD money as well.
“Any delay of any sort will obviously impact the delivery of the system to the first responders and all of the public safety users in the county,” he said. “Any financial impact that may occur is undetermined at this point. If there is any, the amount will be driven by the length of and the reason for the delay.”