Pa. Statewide Police Radio System's Dead Air Is Costly

May 30, 2012
The state has already sunk more than $400 million into building a statewide radio network to serve its agencies' needs, with an expectation of spending $68 million more.

May 30--The state has already sunk more than $400 million into building a statewide radio network to serve its agencies' needs, with an expectation of spending $68 million more.

Despite that enormous investment, state troopers no longer trust it to always work.

So the Pennsylvania State Police is spending $11.5 million on a new backup radio system.

The backup VHF system carries a price tag of $10 million for its patrol cars, and about $1.5 million more to change the antennas on towers for those radios.

State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan would rather see that money go into filling vacancies instead of buying backup radios for a system that was never envisioned to need one. The state police force is eyeing 435 trooper vacancies, with almost 200 more anticipated for next year.

The cost of the new backup radio system would easily have covered the $7.9 million price tag of sending 115 cadets through the state police academy and six months' salary after they graduated.

But Noonan said having a reliable communication system for troopers in the field takes precedence.

"I cannot have my troopers out there without a backup radio system. That would be very dangerous," he said.

Joseph Kovel, president of the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association, has been lobbying hard for more state funding for cadet classes. But he agrees with Noonan's decision to use money for backup radios.

"A radio system is good, but if you don't have anyone to answer it out on the road, it doesn't do you any good," Kovel said.

The radio system was designed to allow every state agency to communicate on the same system. The network was first approved in 1996 and envisioned to cost $179 million. That dollar figure ended up in the rearview mirror long ago.

Troopers say the network is riddled with dead spots that change from one day to the next.

State lawmakers seem increasingly hesitant about continuing to throw money into a system that they are unsure will ever live up to expectations.

The beleaguered statewide 800-megahertz radio system was the subject of a hearing last week involving four state Senate committees. Senate Law and Justice Committee Chairman John Pippy, R-Allegheny County, said he has never had more hearings on a single issue as he has had with this radio system.

Still, Pippy, a lieutenant colonel in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, thinks this unreliable radio system deserves that level of scrutiny.

"If our communications guy in the Army after 10 years wouldn't have been able to close those dead spots, he would have been fired. That's the concern I have," Pippy said.

Defending the system

Representatives of Harris Corp., the company whose technology underlies the statewide system, defended the system at the lawmakers' hearing.

John Vaughan, Harris' vice president for public safety and professional communications, stood firmly behind his company's product. Harris took on the project through its acquisition of Tyco Electronics' Public Safety and Professional Communications group in 2009.

Vaughan described its technology as highly stable and capable of adapting to future and other technologies. He said it is saving the state tens of millions of dollars on data package charges from phone companies, because it can be used for data transmission as well as voice.

Responding to a question about whether the system is obsolete, Vaughan said: "If Pennsylvania came out with a request for proposals today with the same requirements -- one radio for voice and data, the only choice today would be what Pennsylvania already has. Nothing has changed."

Harris representatives place blame for the delay in completing the system by the initial spring 2001 target on a variety of circumstances and problems outside their role as the technology provider.

The state, which served as the system's general contractor, had difficulty acquiring tower sites. A tower company it employed went bankrupt. The scope of the project expanded after Sept. 11, 2001, to include the ability to communicate with local emergency responders and later with law-enforcement aircraft flying overhead.

But the persistent problem that has been the subject of countless tales among state troopers is dead zones, where the radios don't work.

The state's terrain, particularly in the northern tier, has proven to be more challenging than anticipated.

George White, the state's chief information officer, said that at this point, the service area in four counties with mountainous terrain still hasn't reached the contract's threshold -- at least 95 percent coverage in all 67 counties.

Beyond that, some senators are frustrated that the system's original designers settled for less than 100 percent coverage.

Vaughan pledged to work with the state to integrate different technologies, such as the VHF radios the state police are buying, with its own to fill those coverage gaps.

He said, "The question is: Do we want to expend some funds to provide some extra coverage?"

Lawmakers are worried

State Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon County, asked for state officials to give him an accounting of the money that has been spent. He was told the state has authorized spending up to $368 million already.

But that figure doesn't include the $90 million that agencies spent on radios.

Additionally, White said it costs more than $20 million annually to operate and maintain the system.

State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Allegheny County, questioned whether it's time to cut bait on this system.

He also asked if the state has a roadmap to complete the system beyond just transferring responsibility for its management from the governor's Office of Administration to the state police this summer.

"We really don't have a strategic plan for radio systems," White said.

But he added that developing one that involves officials from state and local government agencies and first responders is a priority.

The statewide radio network can communicate with every county 911 center, but many counties have their own radio systems.

Lebanon County looked at the technology the state uses and decided to go in a different direction.

Cumberland County uses the same technology as the statewide radio system, but it too is plagued with problems in parts of the county -- namely Middlesex Twp. and Shippensburg -- where it is unreliable.

For Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne County, the statewide radio system's inconsistent performance was her most pressing concern.

She said she witnessed it firsthand during last year's flooding, when she observed a state trooper unable to communicate with another trooper in the car in front of him.

"We're all hopeful that this transition will result in a next-generation system that you said is built on multiple platforms that will ensure that what happened to us in the flood doesn't happen in the future, and that no one's life could potentially be jeopardized," baker said.

Statewide Radio Network

-- The Legislature approved spending $179 million in 1996 to develop one statewide 800-megahertz public-safety radio system. It was designed to replace aging and outdated radio systems that are used by state agencies. In 1999, a state official was quoted as projecting its completion date as spring 2001.

-- The system was envisioned as providing users with the ability to transmit data and voice communications, which was rather novel at the time.

-- The project's cost subsequently jumped to $368 million -- not including the $90 million spent on radios or $20 million spent annually on operation and maintenance. Problems arose with acquiring tower sites, a bankrupt tower company, expanding the system's scope to interconnect with local and county radio systems, and the state's mountainous terrain.

-- State police troopers began openly complaining about dead spots in coverage, capturing lawmakers' attention.

-- Now the state police are spending $11.5 million more on a 700-megahertz public safety radio system as a backup to the costly statewide radio network.

Copyright 2012 - The Patriot-News, Harrisburg, Pa.

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