County Set to Approve No-Bid $25 Million Contract With Motorola for Emergency Radio Overhaul

Jeff Antenore for Voice of OC

Sheriff Sandra Hutchens addresses county supervisors at May 9, 2017 board meeting.

Orange County supervisors are slated Tuesday to approve the Sheriff’s Department’s recommendation of a $25 million no-bid contract with the telecom giant Motorola to replace proprietary 1990s radio communications infrastructure used by virtually all law enforcement and emergency personnel across the county.

The contract – along with a separate $4 million no-bid contract with Motorola also up for a vote Tuesday – is part of a much larger, $140 million county project in which Motorola will overhaul the aging radio system, known officially as the 800 MHz Countywide Coordinated Communications System.

Only Motorola products can be used on the system, which the company was chosen to create in 1995 under a $70 million contract that later grew to $83 million.

As the 1990s-era equipment becomes obsolete, county supervisors and Hutchens – who oversees the radio system – have opted not to ask other companies what they could offer as a replacement system. The sheriff’s staff have said switching to a different company’s system would be costly and too disruptive to emergency communications.

Under the county’s price agreement with Motorola, handheld radios currently cost up to $5,800 each and motorcycle radios are up to $9,200 each. The upgrades also involve tens of millions of dollars to replace backbone infrastructure, like over 500 base radio stations.

The communications system is a critical component of emergency services in Orange County.

It’s used by all police and fire services across all 34 cities in Orange County, as well as paramedics, public works officials, state and federal agencies, and the police departments for universities, community college districts, and Santa Ana school police.

The system allows dozens of agencies to communicate with each another on specialized channels.

The two contracts up for approval Tuesday are $25 million for Motorola to replace obsolete radio equipment and $4.1 million for the firm to help program up to 18,000 end-user radio units.

The costs for the overall project, which includes the purchase of 20,000 radio units and equipment for 29 dispatch centers, are split between the various agencies that use the system.

Over $85 million will have been spent on the system since 2010, when the replacement project was first approved, through the middle of next year, according to county budget records.

The original contract was awarded by county supervisors after a competitive bid, and the system was deployed in phases between 1999 and 2001.

The system was anticipated to be reliable for the next decade and a half, until about 2015, according to the Sheriff’s Department.

But when it came time to start the process of replacing the aging infrastructure in 2010, the Sheriff’s Department – which manages the system – did not put the contract out to bid to see what other companies could offer.

Instead, county supervisors and Hutchens issued tens of millions of dollars in sole-source contracts to Motorola to replace and upgrade their infrastructure.

“No other [companies] have been contacted since the system is proprietary to Motorola,” the Sheriff’s Department wrote in its 2010 justification for not conducting a competitive bid for the system upgrades.

“There is no direct alternative [to Motorola],” the department wrote. It said Motorola’s prices “would be competitive” with competitors, but didn’t explain how it arrived at that conclusion.

Changing to a different company, the department added, would require “a complete replacement of the current system…which would be prohibitively expensive and unacceptably disruptive to Public Safety radio communications operations throughout the county.”

In its staff report about the $25 million contract up Tuesday, the Sheriff’s Department said the radio system “includes radio infrastructure that is at or near the end of its expected life and will be directly replaced with the current version of the same equipment, maintaining all existing features and functionality while continuing to utilize the existing network.”

Altogether, over $160 million has been spent on the Motorola system since mid-1998, according to county budget documents reviewed by Voice of OC. There was likely additional spending before that, but the information in online budgets doesn’t go back that far.

Another $29 million is budgeted for this fiscal year, which would bring the total spent to roughly $190 million as of the middle of next year, not including costs before July 1998.

The contract is with Motorola Solutions, whose main business is building communications systems for public agencies and private companies. It was formed when Motorola, Inc. was split into two publicly-traded companies in 2011.

Sheriff’s officials did not include the $140 million overall price tag for the project in their staff reports about the multi-million-dollar contracts that are part of the project. Robert Beaver, senior director of administrative services at the the Sheriff’s Department, provided the amount Saturday in response to emailed questions from Voice of OC.

The firm has no registered lobbyist with the county, and no references to the company showed up in a search of county-level campaign contributions since 2009, which includes supervisor and sheriff’s races.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.