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Montco Commissioners press to fix radio system

Montgomery County's commissioners Wednesday morning gave public safety officials emergency powers to buy parts they may need to shore up the county's old radio dispatch system while a new one is chosen.

The 13-year-old Motorola system is "beginning to fail," county officials told the board during its meeting in Norristown. The session was attended by police chiefs from municipalities across the county.

Jim Maza, the county's deputy chief operating officer, recounted a "near miss" of the telecommunications system Sept. 20 when the paging terminal that had been down for maintenance failed to restart.

The pager dispatches rescue workers to handle emergencies. To get it working again, the county was forced to spend $8,000 for a part the next day.

"The public was never in danger. We have workaround plans in place. The message would have gotten out," said public safety director Tom Sullivan.

But county officials said they regarded the "near miss" as a harbinger of system problems to come. In December 2010, Motorola announced it would stop supplying parts and maintenance for systems whose technology dated to the mid-1990s.

"We don't want to scare anybody, but we do have a failing system," Maza said.

The commissioners can build on the existing dispatch system with a bare-bones upgrade worth $18 million, or buy a whole new system for $72 million. Right now, they know too little to choose.

A consultant hired for $27,000 wrote a report, but the commissioners found it too technical.

"He didn't work out," said Joseph M. Hoeffle III.

On Wednesday, they hired a second consultant to "interpret" the language and zero in on the right radio system for the county. The cost will be $100,000 to $200,000.

"I am totally on board with hiring another consultant," said commissioner Bruce L. Castor, Jr. "If we take four weeks or six weeks or eight weeks to pick the right person, we ought to take the time and .. get it right."

Asked by a reporter if the board wasn't just dragging its feet to shift the burden of deciding onto the two commissioners chosen in the Nov. 8 election, president James R. Matthews said no.

"That's not my style," he said. "I'd pick a vendor today, but the public insists on transparency. I am frustrated it is taking this long, but we want to make sure we make the right decision."