Supervisors split on $9.5 million emergency radio contract

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Supervisor Keith Guzy (Dist. 1) and Chairman Morgan Phenix listen to a presentation on proposals for a $9.5 million new radio system upgrade and maintenance agreement.

By Randy Arrington

LURAY, March 3 — The difference in cost between the two seven-figure proposals was $62,236 — less than seven-tenths of one percent. The detailed ranking system used by a hired consulting firm calculated scores of 127.65 for L3Harris and 127.06 for Motorola.

“That’s the closest I’ve seen it come down to in 30 years,” said Cheryl Giggetts, principal consultant for CTA. “Either vendor will provide a public safety communications system that will meet the needs of Page County users.”

County Administrator Amity Moler echoed that sentiment to members of the Page County Board of Supervisors during their work session Tuesday night.

“I don’t think we can make a bad decision on this one,” Moler said.

In addition, among the 10 agencies providing emergency services in Page County, eight endorsed the L3Harris proposal, one endorsed Motorola, and one didn’t respond to the county’s request for input.

In the last six weeks, negotiations with the county have seen Motorola and L3Harris lower their bids, add future services (if needed) to improve emergency radio coverage, and offer options within each system to win over county officials and a $9.5 million contract.

Tuesday night’s vote to award the contract to upgrade emergency radio systems countywide was split, 4-2, with supervisors Keith Guzy (Dist. 1) and Larry Foltz (Dist. 4) both stating, “Not Harris,” in casting their dissenting votes. 

Harris won the multi-million-dollar contract, which will include design, installation, testing and maintenance for the radio system for years to come. Final design, site approval, construction and testing is estimated to take about two years.

Both competing offers included guarantees of coverage ranging between 90 to 95 percent (up from earlier proposals). Both firms offered different options for different systems. Both firms offered adjustments and improvements, at their own expense, to meet the county’s requirements for coverage.

One difference that supervisors discussed was the availability of maintenance and service if the system goes down. 

“Down time is important,” Chairman Morgan Phoenix noted.

L3Harris is based in Harrisonburg, and its proposal includes a shared system with the City of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. Motorola is a larger company, but could not match Harris’ guarantee to respond to problems within two hours and fix them within four.

Motorola guaranteed 95-percent coverage across the board, while L3Harris offered 95 percent in the towns and 94 percent on portables — but only 90 percent on mobiles. Harris also stated they would add an additional tower site, at their own expense, in order to meet guaranteed coverage levels.

Another point of discussion among supervisors was the pros and cons of a shared system versus an independent system. A shared system could help reduce maintenance costs over the longterm, while being independent would mean not being subject to the will of a larger, and more heavily invested, jurisdiction.

“I have preliminarily reached out to them, and they are willing to talk to us,” Moler told supervisors. “[Rockingham] also has coverage issues in the same area we do, so it would benefit them as well.”

In December 2018, the board of supervisors approved a $5.4 million contract with Motorola for its radio systems upgrade, which included a shared system with Shenandoah County. However, when Page officials sat down with Shenandoah officials they declined to participate, and the Motorola contract was rescinded in February 2019.

Currently, Rockingham County and the City of Harrisonburg to the west, and Rappahannock County to the east, operate under the same 700/800MHz system that Page County voted to go with this week. However, if supervisors had chosen the Motorola option, they would potentially be using UHF and VHF systems similar to Warren, Madison and Shenandoah counties.

The variety of systems in the region left local decision makers with options.

“You are an interesting case because you have a little bit of everything around you,” Giggett told supervisors. “If you were surrounded all by the same thing, it wouldn’t make any sense to put you on an island.”

The Luray Volunteer Fire Department was the lone voice for Motorola among 10 emergency agencies in the county weighing in on the topic before the vote. Their main concern was coverage.

“At a recent meeting of the Luray Fire Department Inc., the proposals for the new radio system were discussed at great lengths. Due to the mountainous terrain in Page County and multiple documented failures nationwide of 700/800MHz systems, the Luray Fire Department is not in favor of any 700/800MHZ system,” a letter the department sent to the supervisors and Moler stated. “The membership unanimously recommended staying on our current frequencies in a UHF (Ultra High Frequency) system.”

While 700/800MHz systems do require more “line of site” to operate — and local topography works against that — the county’s consultant assured supervisors that the planned location of tower sites would provide the coverage that they are requiring.

“All these mountains surrounding you really are beautiful, but that’s what makes it difficult…100 percent [coverage] is not achievable, but typically you get a few percentage points more than you are offered,” Giggett said. “Typically UHF and VHF would be better because of the terrain, but because of where the [tower] sites will be located, this 700/800MHz system will provide the coverage you need.”

Securing preliminary site approval from property owners at the tower sites will be a key part of negotiations, as well as many other details still to be worked out. Those details could range from aspects of the shared system arrangement with Rockingham County, to the selection of diesel versus propane generators.

The proposals offered by both vendors were only good through March 31. Feeling the pressure to lock in the price for a long-discussed project that has doubled in cost, the supervisors decided to move forward.

“We can kick the ball around as much as you want,” Supervisor Jeff Vaughan (Dist. 5) said, “but I think we need to go ahead and make a decision.”

The process began with a Critical Needs Assessment in 2017 that addressed new mandates affecting localities all across the state.

The next step for Page will be negotiations with Rockingham and Harrisonburg prior to starting actual construction. Supervisors earmarked $397,000 in the current budget to cover the first phase of the radio replacement project.

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