Nearly six years have gone by and almost $17 million has been spent, but 65 DuPage County public safety agencies are still waiting for a radio system that will allow them to communicate with one another during emergencies.
The project to enable near seamless communication among the county's emergency workers was heralded as a must in post-9/11 America, but it has been plagued by leadership turnover, political strife, controversial bidding practices and indecision almost since its inception.
It's an ambitious project, considering most law enforcement agencies in other suburban counties, like Cook and Lake, have a patchwork communication system using a variety of technologies for emergency communication.
DuPage County's wait might soon be over.The emergency communications system that will eventually cost DuPage County taxpayers close to $30 million and link nearly all county emergency departments is expected to begin its slow roll out by the end of February, officials said.
“We're getting geared up for the first few towns being put on the system in the next month or so and then everybody else will hopefully be online by the middle of the year,” said Addison Village Manager Joe Block, who represents the DuPage Mayors and Managers Conference on the county's Emergency Telephone System Board, which is overseeing the project.
Until then, if a natural disaster, terrorist attack or other catastrophe occurred, police and fire officials from different towns couldn't necessarily talk to one another.
In Addison, which will be one of the first towns online, “we had some things that have delayed it a month or two here or there, but the implementation has gone well,” Block said.
Critics say it's about time. They complain launching the emergency communications system has taken far longer than expected and cost far more than it should have.
“This was something that when it was envisioned would take a year to put in place. It's been very disappointing and millions of dollars more than it was expected to cost in the beginning,” said Mayor Bill Murphy of Woodridge, where public safety employees eventually will use the system that's been in the works since September 2006. “With the kind of dollars that have been spent and the time delay, people should be very concerned.”
Most DuPage County public safety agencies now rely on systems with equipment and frequencies that are incompatible with one another.
The new system will involve almost every fire and police department in DuPage County, with 3,300 radios in all. Aurora, Naperville and Burr Ridge are not participating.
The project began nearly six years ago in a rented conference room of an office building at the corner of Warrenville and Naperville roads in Naperville during a poorly publicized meeting of the Emergency Telephone System Board.
This was in the days before the DuPage County state's attorney's office rendered an opinion that the ETSB was a county government entity and subject to county oversight.
At that meeting, the ETSB — made up of representatives from the DuPage Mayors and Managers Conference, DuPage County Board and the county's police and fire chiefs associations — awarded Schaumburg-based Motorola a $7 million contract that had not been offered to any other potential service providers.
ETSB members argued the contract didn't need to be bid because they were piggybacking onto a statewide project that had been bid and vetted. Critics, including former ETSB representatives, still cry foul about the bidding process.
But that was only the beginning. Over the next four years, the cost of the project ballooned to $48 million. That's when it collapsed under the weight of its own cost and delays.
“It was absolutely scrapped,” said Hinsdale Police Chief Bradley Bloom, the county police chiefs' representative on the ETSB. “We were worried if we could sustain all ETSB activities if we spent this much money.”
Funding for the project comes from phone taxes. The ETSB gets 32 cents a month for each landline and line run through computers and 47 cents for each wireless line.
The ETSB switched gears after four years and settled on another communications system from Motorola in use by the Illinois State Police as well as other state agencies. It needed to be modified to allow for communication indoors, contributing to delays, ETSB officials said.
Steve Gorecki, spokesman for what is now Motorola Solutions, said when the focus of the project shifted, so did the timeline. Additional technology and infrastructure needs by DuPage County that other agencies didn't have with the StarCom 21 system slowed completion.
“StarCom 21 is a great system if you're not going into a building, but that's not the case for most of their users,” said Linda Zerwin, ETSB executive director.
The change to the different system not only cost the ETSB time, but also money, Zerwin admitted.
“If you are looking at some of the ancillary (consultant) contracts, there's some expense there, but the major Motorola contract, no. We were able to do a change order,” she said.
The project received a $3.4 million federal grant to help offset some of the cost, but the rest is paid by taxpayers.
According to records provided by DuPage County Auditor Bob Grogan's office, Motorola has been paid $15,773,742 of its $28,633,848 contract. Hanson Professional Services, the project's construction contractor and consultant, has been paid $620,804 of its $1,034,264 contract. And DuComm, the project's engineering consultant, is working without a contract and has been paid $494,508 for its services to manage the project. Auditor officials said the financial records for the project are muddied by the fact that until 2009, Grogan's office had no oversight of the ETSB.
That worries County Board Chairman Dan Cronin, who has commissioned an $85,000 study of all of the county's quasi-independent boards and commissions that receive county funding or have members appointed by the county board. Cronin said a preliminary draft of the report indicates some issues with the ETSB.
He wouldn't give specifics, saying the report hasn't been sent to the county board.
“The ETSB certainly has room for improvement on how they do business and perform their tasks there,” Cronin said. “The report identifies some areas that need to be addressed.”
This is not the only public safety communication system to come under fire. Naperville and Aurora combined forces to upgrade their communications system to something similar that went live in December 2010. A series of investigations by the Daily Herald's Marie Wilson uncovered numerous problems with malfunctioning equipment, interference and “dead zones” during the system's initial months of operation. That included Aurora police officers losing communication signals while searching the basement of a house that contained numerous firearms and an alligator, according to a report filed by an officer in early 2011.
Ted Beck, Aurora's chief technology officer, said most of the glitches have been addressed, though officers still send him an average of two “trouble tickets” a week ranging from lost signals to broken equipment.
Beck said the DuPage system will likely have similar bugs when it's unveiled.
“My only real advice is to create a good group of real-life system testers because there are some things you just can't test for until it's in the field,” Beck said.
That could prove to be extra important because the system's first major test may come on a worldwide stage when diplomats, dignitaries and protesters descend on the Chicago area for May's simultaneous G8 and NATO summits.
“This is the system we're planning on using,” Bloom said.
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