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State task force considers competitive procurement process for law enforcement radios

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On Tuesday, the Department of Management Services’ Joint Task Force on State Agency Law Enforcement Communications once again discussed a business case from January which recommends a competitive bidding process to achieve the adoption of a suite of “P25” radio standards.

As the state looks to upgrade its outmoded, analog law enforcement radio system the JTF panel reiterated going forward with the its current position, which is to have an open bidding process.

Current vendor Harris Corporation based in Brevard County has been adamant that the most efficient way forward is to avoid a delay or disruption in service that would attend a switch in vendor and allow them to modify the system built around their contract, which was signed in 2000 and is set to expire in 2021. Though Harris reps say they are not opposed to an open bid, there is ongoing budgetary maneuvering which could short-circuit that process, discussed below.

Chairman Mark Perez reviewed letters submitted on the issue, including from Motorola Solutions, Rep. Ritch Workman — a Brevard lawmaker who favors Harris’ approach. They also received public comment from a Polk County Commission radio administrator.

Ben Holycross said that in Polk County, like a great deal of inland Florida, is so large and and the state so strapped for resources that there are more towers for local systems than for state systems. That can lead to “dead zones,” the bane of any officer’s existence. That is reason in and of itself, Holycross said, to consider all available options possible through a competitive process that would allow the state to acquire technology beyond Harris’ purview.

P25, with its emphasis on interoperability, lends itself to using multiple vendors, versus the current arrangement by which Harris provides proprietary radio technology. If Harris retains the sole source, the state can only use their technology at their disposal.

But the dynamics of a potential bidding process were shifting even as the task force deliberated.

This morning, the Senate accepted the House offer the General Government budget conference subcommittee, whereby the Department of Management Services will receive $800,000 connected to proviso language with requires a competitive procurement process to begin 2016.

On the other hand, Harris is asking for $84 million from the state to buy new, P25-enabled digital radios.

So far that request has been blocked by House leaders, but insiders are watching to see whether they get some portion of that after outstanding budget issues are “bumped up” to chief budget writers Richard Corcoran and Tom Lee. Notably, Speaker Steve Crisafulli‘s hometown of Merritt Island is also in Brevard County.

If Harris wins state funds to buy the new radios — on top of the $18 million a year it already receives to operate and upkeep its analog towers across Florida — it would give them significant leverage in the future, as the state would already own many units of updated Harris-made product.

The new, enhanced standards for law enforcement radio systems are meant to make all radios issued to state personnel interoperable, or compatible across agencies and jurisdictions. Florida has seen avoidable tragedies in recent years stemming from incompatible systems which have prevented police and emergency management officials from adequately coordinating.

Industry competitors, say the best way forward is to completely revamp the radio infrastructure from the ground up, scrapping the existing analog system such that no efficiency would result in keeping the current vendor in place beyond their current contract. Motorola Solutions and Airbus are expected to enter a bid if a procurement process goes forward as recommended by the task force.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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