A $40 million enhancement to Mobile County’s 911 system may be delayed even further as officials work to upgrade components that failed to meet the federal standards for wind resistance required along the hurricane-prone Gulf Coast.

The Mobile County Communications District (MCCD) was recently told some of the microwave dishes in the $40 million radio system currently under construction failed tests conducted over the summer. Last week, Jeya Selvaratnam of Tusa Consulting said that’s because the dishes, as designed, can only withstand a maximum wind speed of 68 mph.

“The federal government mandates any tower built in Mobile County must withstand 150 mph winds. The towers are built accordingly, but the dishes — the microwave dishes installed on those towers — are designed only for 68 mph winds,” Selvaratnam said. “We can assume that any time there are wind speeds in excess of 68 mph, you will not have a working radio system. That is not acceptable for a public safety agency.”

With winds in a Category 1 hurricane reaching a minimum of 74 mph, the news was troubling to MCCD board members, only a handful of whom were serving when designs for the project were approved in 2013. For those who were, though, the news was frustrating given that a network that could function in severe weather was a main “selling point” when discussions about upgrading the 911 system began.

Commissioners from the Mobile County Communications District and Harris Communications representatives break ground on a $40 million emergency communications project Nov. 18, 2014.

Commissioners from the Mobile County Communications District and Harris Communications representatives break ground on a $40 million emergency communications project Nov. 18, 2014.

“This was all part of that bill of goods they sold us,” board member Trey Oliver said. “We were told repeatedly three or four years ago from the county, Harris and Hurricane [Electronics Inc.] that this was one of the reasons for upgrading the system … that we would have a more reliable system during times of severe weather.”

Besides addressing the issue itself, MCCD director Charlie McNichol said his staff would also be “figuring out how the design got past someone” in the first place.

That likely means backtracking through a tumultuous two years that saw the termination of a former MCCD director, multiple new board appointments and a rift between MCCD and the county’s public works department. However, McNichol said assigning fault would be “on the back burner,” adding that he’s already met with Harris’ regional sales team once in hopes of finding a quick fix to the problem.

“[Harris has] initiated efforts to correct the concerns,” he said. “This will be done at no additional cost to MCCD, and if the action taken does, in fact, correct the concern, it will be able to be completed without any effect on the project’s work schedule.”

In the meantime, the installation of mobile radio units will continue without interruption. McNichol called that “good news” considering the project has already been delayed twice — once in 2015 to renegotiate Harris’ contract and then again over the summer when “clashing personalities” gummed up a data-sharing agreement with Mobile County.

The new system was supposed to be fully operational by September, but last week Selvaratnam said it would likely not be running until March 2017 at the earliest.

Radio trading

Mobile County Communications District.

Mobile County Communications District.

Though it isn’t the first time, a decision made by a former configuration of the MCCD board is causing concern for its current members. Now, some are concerned a contract with the county’s Governmental Utilities Services Board may be a bad deal for MCCD and could even be against the law.

The GUS Board, among other things, maintains 2,000 acres of land between Laurendine Road and Bay Road in Theodore. The parcel generates revenue through hunting and agriculture leases and also serves as a mitigation bank for the county.

However, MCCD also uses part of that property to access one of its radio towers, and in 2014 agreed to give the GUS Board 13 new mobile radio units to maintain that access.

“Typically, when we lease property or get access from another government entity, it’s a multi-year lease for a nominal amount of money … like a dollar per year,” McNichol said.

At $5,250 per radio, the lease would cost MCCD more than $68,000 as written, but there are also legal concerns about spending 911 funds on radios for officials who aren’t first responders — especially given that the lease doesn’t specify who’d be using them.

The GUS Board itself doesn’t have any employees because most of its work is performed by the Mobile County engineering department and supervised by environmental services director Bill Melton. Last week Melton told Lagniappe “the GUS Board would make the decision” about who would use the radios, though he did say he’s hopeful his staff “would be the recipient of some.”

“I think that’s what the intent was at the beginning,” he added.

However, attorneys representing both entities seem to have a different opinion about whether funds taken from residents’ phone bills for the 911 system can be redirected to provide new radio equipment for county employees.

MCCD attorney Jeff Hartley believes the agreement — overseen by former attorney Larry Wettermark — is “beyond the scope of the statutory charge of the board and what it can do.”

However, when addressing the concerns MCCD has with the contract, County Attorney Jay Ross was quick to point out the board — including some of the current members — had already voted to approve the lease.

“They made it and they approved it, but now they don’t like the deal,” Ross added. “I’d say there could still be some conversation, but it was an arm’s length transaction that was negotiated with their executive board and with their attorney.”

According to Hartley, the GUS Board sent a “demand letter” to MCCD last month about the radios, but so far there’s been no discussion about restricting access to the property. Instead, he said, all parties seem to be “seeking a resolution.”

“They’re appointed by the County Commission, so we’re talking about family here,” McNichol added. “I can’t imagine that they’d just cut us off like that.”