For the past five years, Flagler County government has been working toward replacing its $11 million emergency communications system on which all local government’s emergency, fire, police and utility personnel depend, including the sheriff’s office.
Last week the county was ready to award a $14.8 million contract to Motorola Solutions to carry out the upgrade and replacement of a system now 14 years old. The system is still effective, but its manufacturer is phasing out its replacement parts and maintenance. The new system will eliminate most existing “gaps” or dead zones in coverage, reaching 97 percent coverage, double user capacity as the county keeps growing, improve reliability and improve usability across agencies.
The cost for the new system includes $8.8 million for five new and one replacement telecommunication towers, plus services to those towers. (See the list of new towers here.) That’s the sticker price: the negotiated price is to be lower. The actual price for the equipment, such as portable radios, is $5 million, but that will be split between the agencies using the system, including Palm Coast, Bunnell, Flagler Beach, the Sheriff’s Office, the county and possibly the school district.
The county commission has not yet approved a funding mechanism. The existing system is still being financed through a 2003 bond that will be paid off within three years.
In an interview this afternoon, County Administrator Craig Coffey said there will be two funding mechanisms, both likely to be bank loans: one will be a loan to pay for the backbone of the system, the other will be one to pay for the equipment. The backbone loan will essentially be a continuation of the financing costs in place now, with the 2003 bond, but through a different lending mechanism. The financing of the equipment will be done with the aid of agency users.
But as far as costs to taxpayers and residents, there will be no difference: “Taxpayers won’t see any difference related to this system,” Coffey said.
The certainty is that Coffey plans to have the new system ready by July 2019, in time for next year’s hurricane season. By then, there’ll be just two months left in the service agreement with the existing system’s provider.
But the procurement process for the new system ran into a hitch last week: Communications International, the only other company to respond to the request for proposal, filed a protest when Motorola was chosen. Communications International is responsible for the existing system and had been hoping to win the next contract.
County Attorney Al Hadeed described the situation as “very unusual—I’m about to say the word ‘unprecedented,’” he told county commissioners last week. “It is unprecedented at least for my tenure working for the county commission, that we would be in this kind of situation.”
The situation was this: while CI was required to submit its formal bid protest by last Friday (it did so by Thursday), the county’s policy on bid protests is such that it calls for a halt to the procurement process while the protest is being addressed. There is an exception. If the county commission determines that the procurement process must go on, in the public’s interest, then it does so—simultaneously as the protest is being addressed. That means the county continues its plans to work with Motorola even as those plans may be derailed should the bid protest prove successful. The protest is addressed simultaneously.
The county must find reason to take that approach, and last week, it did: Hadeed spelled it out.
“In this situation,” he said, “there is a critical need to move forward. There is heightened attention, especially from law enforcement, emergency management and the fire services to upgrade and replace the system as soon as possible. While there is this critical need to push forward, the county likewise should accord the competing bidder an opportunity to continue its challenge to the procurement process, especially on such a large project. So that’s the catch-22.”
But whatever happens, plenty has to happen on the county’s side for the county to reach its objectives regarding the contract, so “these work efforts are not wasted even if the bid challenge is sustained, provided the challenge is handled promptly,” Hadeed said. The county administrator has 10 days to address the bid protest from the time it is filed.
Based on his own participation in emergency matters, Hadeed said he considered the continuation of the procurement process essential. “Aside from the fact that the communications network is nearing the end of its useful life and the further fact that it is unable to service adequately all of the growth the county has experienced since the early 2000s, the county has several emergency situations that require the installation of the new system as soon as reasonably possible to protect the public,” he said, quoting from a memo he wrote commissioners.
There are two states of emergency in effect, with more potential emergencies ahead. The communications network is vital in times of emergency. Dead and decaying vegetation could fuel a more serious wildfire season. School safety is at even more of a premium now, after the Parkland massacre—and the new system is set to diminish (but not eliminate) coverage gaps inside school buildings. For those reasons, Hadeed said, “I recommend that you declare the public necessity and direct that the bid challenge matter return to you on an expedited basis before you approve the vendor award. This in effect means that the county administrator will be simultaneously working on furthering implementation of the procurement while investigating the bid challenge.”
“This is unprecedented, it’s unprecedented in that a low-compliant bidder would not have the opportunity to discuss” the RFP, Gene Viviano, president of Communications International, told commissioners. He disputed the assessment that the current system is “obsolete,” saying Volusia, Brevard and the State of Florida are all on the same CI system until 2021. (Florida has just awarded its emergency communications contract to Motorola as well.)
That’s the same technology, Viviano said, that powered Flagler’s communications system through several recent emergencies, and did so with the commendations of local officials. “That’s all in this Harris Communications system that we provided to Flagler County for the last 15 years, and through all the hurricanes, it has been up and running,” he said, using the terms CI and Harris Communications interchangeably. “ There was a hitch in the last hurricane, it was minimal, and it was created by the generator, OK? Running out of power, not the radio system. The radio system is very sound and can withstand some future growth at least for the next period of time we’re asking you to take the consideration to look at our filing our protest.”
Another CI officials said Motorola and CI are “both are compliant in this RFP process, so you need to look at what is in the best interest of the county. We’ve been a partner with this county for over 15 years. We have people who live here and are employed and service this county.”
“Although it served us very well we do have gaps in coverage and other issues as well that we’re trying to correct,” County Administrator Craig Coffey said.
He explained the difference between a standard bid process and a request for proposal. “There’s a drastic difference between a standard bid and a request for proposal. Standard bid compares low price to low price of the lowest responsible bidder. A request for proposal is a much broader consideration of value and intrinsic type measures, and it does allow us some subjectivity into it if you can get additional value for the additional cost. It allows you to essentially pay more if you think you’re going to get additional value for that or there’s additional issues. It may allow you to consider more warranty or different issues like that.”
“We’ve delayed as long as we can and this is the time to do it, so it’s not just because of the recent storms,” Commissioner Dave Sullivan said of the necessity to move forward with the procurement.
The commission voted unanimously to go ahead with addressing the procurement process and the bid process simultaneously.