According to the 9/11 Commission Report, which was released in July 2004, "The inability to communicate was a critical element at the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Somerset County, Pennsylvania, crash sites, where multiple agencies and multiple jurisdictions responded."
Achieving "interoperability" the means by which emergency personnel from near and far-flung jurisdictions can communicate with each other has become the most important and most daunting task facing first responders across the nation.
It's a technological challenge of stupendous proportions. It's also an endeavor that will cost taxpayers billions of dollars. This fiscal year in Missouri, the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) is doling out roughly $80 million in Homeland Security funds designated for, among other things, interoperability.
St. Louis, following the lead of Independence, Missouri, is poised to wade into these tricky waters. On Wednesday, December 20 (as this issue goes to press), the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department Board of Police Commissioners is expected to award a multimillion-dollar contract for a complex computer switch that would enable communities throughout the St. Louis region to access each others' radios.
"We're doing something monumental," says Charles Gastler, the police department's communications manager. "It's something that hasn't been done before in this region or, as a matter of fact, in too many areas of the country."
But before the transaction even reached the police board, some radio makers cried foul, claiming the bid was tailored so only one manufacturer could successfully compete.
"The vendor that will win this deal is the one who sold them the system many years ago," says Fred Gallart, area sales director for Lowell, Massachusetts-based M/A-COM.
The radio system he refers to was installed by Motorola back in 1989 far too long ago for Gastler. "The system's days are numbered," he says. "It is in dire need of replacement."
With the exception of the fire department, all St. Louis city agencies from the dog-catcher to Police Chief Joe Mokwa communicate over the Motorola system.
But city officials and police officers cannot hit a button on their radios and speak to counterparts in, say, St. Charles or Town & Country. Like everywhere else in the nation, this region's emergency personnel and government agencies all operate on proprietary-technology radio systems over disparate frequencies.
And so, says Gastler, in the event that someone detonates a suitcase bomb at the Edward Jones Dome on Christmas Eve, or launches a chemical attack on Opening Day at Busch Stadium, the St. Louis police would face dangerous delays radioing neighboring agencies for help.
"But let's say we deploy a region-wide P25 radio system, and all our partners have joined the system," says Gastler. "They'd all arrive at the dome and we'd be able to communicate." ("P25" is a catchphrase for a suite of open-source radio standards that the federal government is instituting to ensure vendors make interoperable equipment.)
The cost for this radio system for St. Louis is $19 million. Major Paul Nocchiero of the police department says he is frantically knocking on doors at City Hall and in Washington, D.C., in an effort to cobble together that funding. A city bond issue passed last year will kick $4 million the police department's way, Nocchiero says.
In the meantime, the money gap hasn't stopped the police department from moving to procure at least some elements of an interoperable system. In January 2006 the State Emergency Management Agency granted the department $2.3 million for a Regional Network Controller, the computer switch that will get future P25 systems throughout the region conversing.
Gastler and colleagues at three partnering local agencies spent nine months hashing out technical requirements for the switch, and the contract finally went out for bid last month. As soon as it did, vendors started grumbling.
David Cerqua, general manager of Texas-based EADS Secure Networks, says he examined the Request for Proposal (RFP) for fewer than five minutes before deciding not to bid. "The RFP was forwarded to me with a note from a regional salesperson who said, 'I wanted you to see this, but it looks like it's wrapped around Motorola.'"
EADS is among the handful of firms that share the interoperable-equipment market. Cerqua's counterparts at rival companies Texas-based E.F. Johnson and M/A-COM agree with his assessment. The beef centers around a stipulation that the winning vendor's switch operate with proprietary Motorola consoles currently used by the police department and fourteen other agencies who want to hook up to the system.
"It's the tail wagging the dog," says Cerqua. "This two million dollars they spend on the switch is going to dictate how they spend the next nineteen million."
Not so, counters Gastler: "Anything we buy will be on open standards. That's the great thing about us following P25. If I buy manufacturer A's switch, I can buy manufacturer B's bay station, and mobile and portable radios from manufacturers C, D, E, F, G and H."
M/A-COM sales reps say such a piecemeal approach to procurement is rare. Cities frequently contract for an entire radio system, including the computer switch, says Gallart. That was the case in Independence two years ago. Armed with federal and state grants, the city accepted bids for a $7.7 million contract for its P25 system in July 2004. Motorola won that deal.
Nick Tusa, a New Orleans-based industry consultant, says St. Louis' RFP contained another oddity: There was no pre-bid conference scheduled for interested vendors to inspect the department's current equipment and setup.
"It sounds like they have something in mind they want to buy, and they have a vendor that understands what that something is, and they only expected to get one proposal," explains Tusa.
"Absolutely not!" Gastler objects. "We want a competitive environment."
In the end, only two companies Motorola and M/A-COM bid on the switch contract.
"I wished I would have seen 100 proposals," says Gastler.