After seeing its projected completion date last September pushed back to November, then January and again to March, the $40 million enhancement to Mobile County’s 911 radio system still isn’t complete and most likely won’t be until July at the soonest.
Last week, board members at the Mobile County Communications District (MCCD) joined consultants overseeing the multi-million-dollar endeavor in criticizing Harris Corp., the main contractor building the new system, for lacking “a sense of urgency” to complete the project.
“I still feel [Harris] does not have enough resources allocated to this project, and that was one of the major impacts,” Jeya Selvaratnam of Tusa Consulting told the board. “A project like this, you cannot remote-control it from the corporation forever. [Harris] does not have proper planning with timelines, nor when there is a delay do they do hold people accountable for things like that.”
In his monthly address to the board, Selvaratnam went on to air a number of grievances with Harris, suggesting that the company, which is based in Melbourne, Florida, needs to have personnel on location in Mobile County more frequently than it has in the past.
Notably, a representative from Harris was not present at the May 11 MCCD meeting, though Dirk Young, CEO of Hurricane Electronics, was. Selvaratnam said there have been other, more important steps in the four-year process where Harris has been reluctant to work with those “on the ground” handling the day-to-day installation of the new system.
“Next week, we are going to have a coverage test — a very important factor on a radio system — and Harris subcontracted to somebody else and their engineers or project managers involved in the project — none of them were planning on being here,” he added. “I insisted that, ‘one of y’all have to be here to start the coverage test,’ and reluctantly, the project managers have agreed to be here, but I shouldn’t have to go and tell them what they have to do on a project such as this.”
As Lagniappe has reported, MCCD’s contract with Harris has been controversial ever since the agency initially tried to forgo a required bidding process in favor of using a pre-approved state contracting list to award the $40 million project directly to Harris as a sole-source contract in 2013.
Tusa Consulting worked with MCCD at the time but was later terminated before being rehired as concern among the board members prompted an internal investigation leading to a $5 million reduction in the cost of Harris’ contract in 2015 — one that delayed the project several months.
Yet, in spite of that, Harris has been continually paid for its work — receiving 36 monthly payments of $55,417.50 from September 2013 through August 2016 as well as much larger “milestone payments” as specific work was completed throughout the course of the project.
With just one remaining “milestone payment,” board Director Charlie McNichol said MCCD has no plans to pay the $841,750.01 it owes Harris until the system is fully operational and deemed acceptable by the board, though even he admitted that was a “miniscule” bargaining chip considering what Harris has already collected from the contract.
“I’ve thought since I came to be involved in this that the last payment really is miniscule compared to the size of the project,” McNichol said. “I don’t know how that happened because I wasn’t involved with how it was structured, but we’re going to hold to it tight until we’re up and running.”
Currently, Hurricane Electronics is in the process of installing mobile and portable radios to be used by law enforcement and emergency management agencies once the new 911 system is operational. The largest user group — the Mobile Police Department — is scheduled for installation this week.
According to McNichol, MCCD is also still waiting for Harris to complete a “no-cost change order” the company agreed to after Tusa consultants discovered microwave antennas on the new system towers weren’t designed to withstand wind speeds from even mild hurricanes.
Though Harris agreed to beef up the antennas’ durability, Selvaratnam said he was still waiting on contractual language from Harris about the those design changes despite having requested them “repeatedly.”
However, the consultants with Tusa aren’t the only ones who’ve have been concerned about Harris’ commitment as the lengthy project draws closer to a close. The board elected to send a letter to Harris about a projected timeline and other issues after similar concerns were echoed by first responders involved with the implementation of the new system and McNichol himself.
“We’re in a programming stage, which takes time, no question, but there’s just not a sense of urgency — in our opinion — on Harris’ part to wrap this thing up,” McNichol said. “They will after this letter.”
Lagniappe reached out to a Harris media contact but had not received a response as of this publication’s press deadline.
Being “the closest thing [Harris] had to the representative” at the meeting, Young said planning the implementation of the new system around holidays and events such as Mardi Gras, which typically cause high call volume for first responders, had been part of the delay.
“There are things that will have the effect of causing the project as a whole to kind of lose its momentum and slow down a little bit. I know that sounds like we’re making excuses, but those are valid dates and things that we look at during implementations,” he said. “That said, we’re underway, the system’s underway and performing, and we’re in the midst of getting everybody moved in that direction.”
In response, board member Trey Oliver said he understood the challenges that come with changing over a radio system serving more than 400,000 people, but added MCCD never made any excuses when it came time to pay Harris and Hurricane for their services.
“As a local, I know you’re absolutely right — not much gets accomplished during Mardi Gras around here or on holidays,” he said. “At the same time, without trying to sound coy, those darn payments sure were paid on time.”
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