BELLEFONTE - After five years of discussions and planning, the Centre County commissioners have finally moved forward with a major upgrade to its emergency communications system.
And, the commissioners said, the wait ended up saving the county's taxpayers millions of dollars.
The commissioners at their meeting Tuesday agreed to a $12.425 million contract with Motorola Solutions to upgrade its radio communications system. That contract includes an opportunity to purchase $1.25 million in subscriber units, such as mobile radios and portable communications devices.
In addition, the county approved a memorandum of understanding with Penn State University for the university to provide $4 million toward the rest of the system, which will make the university and the county "interoperable," in addition to the university paying 20 percent of the maintenance and support costs of the entire 911 system.
Larry Bickford, of Mission Critical Partners Inc., and a former county administrator, noted the discussions about upgrading the county's emergency radio system - which now only covers half of the county - started back in 2007.
Motorola came back with a cost study the next year with four options, ranging in cost from $22 million to $24 million.
The county rejected that offer, and Motorola came back with an unsolicited bid a few years later. That offer was again rejected, with the previous board of commissioners trying to shave off millions of dollars.
The latest effort, to hire MCP to help broker the deal, proved successful, as it, in fact, saved millions of dollars.
That savings, however, did not come without a lot of effort between MCP, Motorola and the county, Bickford said.
"We worked with the county staff and Motorola meeting weekly, most of the times three or four times a week, until we came to this agreement," Bickford said.
"We have a good plan to proceed. I'm glad to be moving forward," said Criminal Planning Director Gene Lauri.
COMPLETION IN TWO YEARS
Officials believe it will be about two years before the new system is completely operational, with a short time frame of interlap between the two systems. Once in operation, however, the new communications system should be able to cover 90 percent of the county with 95 percent reliability, John Caulifield of Motorola said.
"The most important upgrade will be the improved coverage," Caulifield said. "This will be leap years of what the communications system is now."
He noted the improved coverage will come from the county increasing the number of tower sites dramatically, from five to 17.
"That is a huge increase," Caulifield said.
All of the new tower sites will be leased off of current cell phone sites. One current tower will have to be replaced, he said.
Patty John from Motorola thanked the county and MCP for the due diligence they put in and is confident the new system will serve the county for now and for the next 20 years.
All who spoke also thanked each other for the cooperation on all avenues.
Commissioner Chris Exarchos called it a "truly team effort," noting the decrease in cost not only came from the hard work by all, but due to new designs and new technology.
A TEAM EFFORT
"It really was a remarkable team effort," he said. "It really is a significant savings, but not at the expense of the system, with the new technologies and all the designs to look at."
Commissioner Michael Pipe, who used the lack of an improved communications system as one of his main platforms in his candidacy last year, said he did not realize the amount of effort and different areas that had to come together to bring this new system to fruition.
"The focus has always been how is this going to help the way our first responders communicate," he said. "This is a system that will serve us well into the future."
Commissioner Chairman Steve Dershem, who was on the last board of commissioners, echoed those remarks, thanking Motorola for staying with the effort, even though that board had some tough remarks at the time in order to save the county money.
"I am really impressed with you (Motorola) and your ability to cooperate with us," he said. "I think all did a really fantastic job."
Regarding the Penn State University aspect, Bickford said his firm worked with the university early on as well, and the agreement will allow PSU to have ownership of its radio system. However, the two systems will be "interoperable," and either system can act as a back up for both.
Lauri said the university will provide $2 million up front for the project, with another $2 million after it's completed.
Steve Shelow, Penn State assistant vice president for police and public safety, said the independent system will come in handy for the university, especially during the six or seven home football games each year.
Pipe said the agreement between the county and Penn State was modeled slightly after one formed between Ohio State University and its home county.
"All three of us (commissioners) are PSU grads and we are really glad to be partnering with you," he said.
Dershem called the partnership "a logical fit."
STATE OF THE ART
Dan Tancibok, director of county 911/Emergency Communications Department, said not only will the new system improve coverage, but it will also switch it from the old, analog system to the state-of-the-art digital system, which will allow dispatchers and responders to use more voice and other data during calls.
He noted the county's fire chief's association has been awarded a $900,000 state grant to pay for most of the new, needed portable radios, with another $1 million grant for the subscriber radios. The ambulance service association has also applied for a state grant for the portable radios, while the county should apply later this week for a $500,000 state grant for the master site controller for the network.
The other entities, such as police and public works, will have to purchase their own new radios, Tancibok said.
Officials noted the project, though millions of dollars, was not bid out to other firms.
Bickford said his firm has brokered several other deals in other counties, with more than half of them also not bid out.
"Our own recommendation was to stay with Motorola, both from the responders point of view and the operators point of view," he said. "We've seen most of the time bidding was not in the best interest of the county."
Exarchos added Motorola is "in the forefront of technology" and he's "very confident the county would not have received a better price if it would have went through the bidding process."
Dershem added, "I feel very secure and very confident the price is not only fair, but far exceeds the expectations from years ago.
"This is the best deal we could have delivered for the taxpayers of Centre County, as well as for the emergency responders," he said.
The county will still have the added expenses of upgrading its tower sites and refurbishing the emergency communications consoles, but the total will likely come to far less than the estimated $22 million to $24 million from several years ago.
In addition to this contract, the county last month agreed to a $132,480 contract with Schrader Group Architecture LLC to provide construction administrative services to move the communications center from the first floor to the entire ground floor of the Willowbank Building.
The move will provide the center with about 2,000 more square feet, from 7,000 to 9,000.
The new 911 center will take the place of the current Mental Health/Intellectual Disabilities Department, which will move to another location near the county courthouse.