Users worry that changing system may cause more problems like those of the 9-1-1 system

The controversy swirling around Portland's replacement 9-1-1 dispatch system is raising concerns about another larger and more expensive city emergency communications project: replacement of the regional public safety emergency radio system.

Portland City Commissioner Randy Leonard recently called attention to the project by firing the director of the Portland Safety System Revitalization Program, the city entity charged with coordinating both projects. Former program Director Lisa Vasquez is expected to file a state whistleblower lawsuit against the city, claiming she was fired for trying to expose problems with one or more of the projects.

Leonard declined to comment at length about reasons behind Vasquez's firing on the advice of the city attorney's office, but said they involved multiple personnel issues.

The city owns and operates both the 9-1-1 dispatch system and the emergency radio system that serves police agencies and fire departments throughout the region.

The city spent $14.5 million early this year to replace the region's 9-1-1 system. It serves first responders in Multnomah County.

After the replacement system was activated on April 17, users - including police and fire agencies across the county - lodged hundreds of complaints about it, many of which the city is still trying to resolve.

But the city also plans to spend around $50 million to replace the emergency radio system in coming years. It also serves first responders in Washington and Clackamas counties, as well as Clark County, Wash.

Some users say they do not understand the project's necessity.

'I haven't heard an explanation of why this needs to be done at this time,' says Fairview Police Chief Ken Johnson. 'The radio system is working fine.'

Leonard says the radio system needs to be replaced for the same reason as the 9-1-1 system. Although the users think it is working well, he argues that it is out of date and growing increasingly hard to maintain.

Leonard also defends the management of both projects, saying the users always have the option of not using Portland's services if they are not happy with them.

'How we manage the system is our business. The users are contracting with us for services, and they are free to stop contracting with us if they don't like them,' Leonard says.

Questions have already been raised about whether the users will have to replace some or all of their radio equipment to be compatible with Portland's new system. Leonard says no, even though the replacement system has not yet been chosen.

Replacement work

Portland has been thinking about replacing the radio system since 2005, according to Ken Rust, the city's former chief administrative officer. Rust says public safety bureau heads and employees at the Office of Management and Finance realized that several emergency communication system were getting old and would need to be replaced around the same time.

'The decision was made to create an umbrella organization to bring all of the public safety agencies together and integrate all of the replacement systems as best as possible,' says Rust, who recently retired.

The Portland City Council formed the Public Safety Systems Revitalization Program to meet that need. It was created within the 2006-07 city budget, during the annual midyear budget monitoring adjustment process.

The authorization made the program an initiative within the city's Office of Management and Finance with the responsibility of overseeing five replacement projects, including the 9-1-1 dispatch and radio systems. The other three are the Portland Police Data System used by law enforcement agencies throughout the region, an information system used by Portland Fire and Rescue and a computer-based Emergency Operations System used by a number of public safety agencies.

Because Portland did not have enough money to replace the radio system when it created the Public Safety Systems Revitalization Program, it adopted a two-phase approach, with the first phase being stabilization of the existing system. In December 2010, Motorola was awarded a $6 million directed contract to upgrade the main computer known as the controller.

The second phase will replace the existing radio system. It is being largely financed by the $72.4 million public safety bond measure approved by Portland voters in November 2010 to fund a variety of projects. In addition to the radio replacement, the bond work includes remodeling the Portland fire station at the east end of the Hawthorne Bridge and buying new firefighting equipment.

The measure was sponsored by Leonard, who is in charge of Portland Fire and Rescue. He raised more than $166,000 for the successful bond measure campaign. Because of Leonard's involvement in the issue, Mayor Sam Adams put him in charge of the Public Safety Systems Revitalization Program around the time the measure passed. That's why Leonard had the authority to fire Vasquez.

Leonard replaced Vasquez with Andrew Carlstrom, a longtime city employee who previously worked in the city auditor's office before transferring about two years ago to the Office of Management and Finance. Leonard says the change will not affect any of the public safety program projects.

Replacement risks?

The radio replacement project is being managed by Portland Fire Chief John Klum and Mark Greinke, director of the Bureau of Technology Services, another entity within the Office of Management and Finance that operates the radio system.

During a December 2010 council briefing, Klum and Greinke said options for choosing the replacement system include soliciting requests from qualified companies or entering into a sole-source contract with Motorola, the company given the contract to replace the system's controller.

Although the final decision has not yet been made, Motorola may already have the upper hand in winning the contract to replace the radio system, according to the minutes of a public safety systems program advisory body.

The Radio Project Oversight Committee was appointed to provide an independent review of the project as it proceeds. At its March 22 meeting, project manager Larson told the committee about the previous Motorola contract to stabilize the controller. Board member Shea Marshman asked if there were any concerns that the work performed by Motorola might cause any difficulties if the city went with a different system provider in the future.

According to the meeting's minutes, 'Larson said there was a risk in having to replace the controller again if the city went to another vendor; that would be part of the analysis, asking the questions - does it make sense to go out to another vendor? Does it make sense to try to migrate our system onto a current Motorola system? Does it make sense to go out to RFP (request for proposals)? Larson said those are the kinds of analyses that need to be completed to make sure the city is looking at the right things.'

Motorola was also the biggest contributor to the campaign in support of the public safety bond measure that is funding most of the radio replacement project. The company contributed $35,000 to the campaign.

The only other equipment provider contributing to the campaign was Emerson Electric, which donated $500.

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