Seek Professional Help
Most public safety communications systems need rebuilding or a major modification every 10 or 12 years. Often, system owners need help from consultants to cope with what is, to say the least, a non-routine project.
It takes special talents to define objectives, plan and design the system, write the requirements, select the best contractor, oversee construction and verify that the finished system meets the owner’s needs. Although the owner’s organization may include employees with some of these talents, it is unlikely that both the talent and the time are available to do the whole task without outside help.
If the details of such major construction are not followed carefully, then an owner risks disappointment in system performance, wasting taxpayer money or even fighting a legal battle with the bad publicity it brings. Consider the various project phases and what to watch out for in each phase.
Setting system objectives — Don’t bypass or shortchange the first step of setting system objectives. The best set of objectives for a communications system usually balances what user representatives say they want, financial limitations, future growth projections and perhaps some political objectives of the owner agency.
Today, it is common to see multiple agencies or even multiple governments jointly build and operate a single communications system. This approach can justify using more channels to build a trunking radio system instead of a number of smaller, conventional systems. Often, combined systems (radio communications, dispatching, CAD and E9-1-1 call-taking) can be more economical than separate systems.
What is important is to give everyone involved a say in the planning of such a joint venture. Usually, such joint operations work when managed by a representative user board that gives everyone a voice in the ongoing operation. It is essential before beginning operation to get all the necessary joint powers and operating agreements in place to avoid surprises and legal problems later.
Start with a formal study of the current system condition, limitations and strengths to justify any new system or major modification. Use the study to identify present and future needs that the current system fails to meet. Most of these studies end with a recommendation intended to solve current limitations and to provide for future needs. A good study addresses anticipated questions about the need to spend money on new construction. This report documents what’s always required for financial and political approval. The report can include a recommended solution with cost estimates and can describe alternative solutions with their advantages and limitations.
Consultants often help system owners through this first justification phase. A good consultant can listen to all parties involved and summarize their needs, concerns and ideas in an unbiased, objective way.
Decision point — Only the system owner can decide what action to take. If he is convinced that a major upgrade is justified and if funding is available, then he will generally select one of the following steps and proceed with procurement:
- Write a request for proposal (RFP), and solicit proposals from a number of potential system suppliers.
- Write a detailed specification and issue an invitation to bid (ITB) to potential system suppliers.
- Select a system supplier and directly negotiate for equipment and services.
- Select a manufacturer, buy hardware off a State Contract and negotiate to get it installed with the selected manufacturer.
- Issue an ITB for hardware only and take on the system design and installation with owner personnel.
Free service offers — A supplier may offer to supply a detailed system design for no charge if the owner contracts to purchase the system from that supplier. The owner risks forgoing an independent review of the system’s features and performance after construction. With a free service offer, the responsibility for monitoring the project falls on the owner. If the owner’s organization has available talent and time, this approach may be appropriate. If not, a good consultant can provide the system design and monitor the project. It isn’t a good idea to eliminate or to apply inadequate resources to review proposals and subsequent contractor performance.
The RFP process — The request for proposal process typically defines the required system in less specific terms than the ITB process. It generally defines the required system performance without defining how it must be accomplished; therefore, it allows more flexibility and innovation in the offer. Often, it allows more responders to offer an acceptable solution than an ITB would. It’s more common to see RFPs issued for complex systems.
The ITB process — In contrast, the ITB process defines more specific requirements. As a result, ITB responses require less detailed descriptions. Price is the prime and perhaps the only factor used to decide which bidder gets the contract. It is assumed that all compliant bids offer a satisfactory solution. Because the ITB is more definitive, it usually takes more effort to create, especially if the author intends to leave the ITB “open” enough to allow multiple compliant bidders. Thus, writing an open ITB for a complex system is highly involved.
In writing system requirements for either an RFP or ITB, an experienced consultant can include requirements to avoid many of the common problems that other owners have had. As a minimum, an RFP or ITB should be reviewed by someone with more experience, even if the owner’s employee drafts the requirements document.
Direct negotiation with a supplier — For a number of reasons, it may make good sense to negotiate with one supplier without a competitive process.
One example could be a major expansion to an existing trunked radio system.
Another might involve constructing a new trunked radio system in a jurisdiction adjacent to an existing one where mutual aid operations would be frequent and critical.
Trunking hand-held and mobile units do not usually operate with full compatibility between different brands of trunking systems. Thus, once a trunking system is purchased, the owner is “married” to that manufacturer for the life of the system. Most government purchasing systems will not allow this non-competitive purchasing approach without sufficient justification.
Because the owner with these kinds of situations can be in a vulnerable negotiating position, it is important to have a trained, skilled negotiator on the team. The owner must enter this negotiation with both the mindset and with an understanding with the potential supplier that “You are our preferred supplier but we are willing to walk away and find another choice if negotiations do not go fairly.” To ensure a reasonable deal is being made, it is important to obtain an objective evaluation of the equipment and services being purchased. Some consultants have the experience and training to satisfy these needs.
State contract purchases — Many government agencies may have rights to purchase hardware under a state contract and avoid the competitive procurement process. At first, this may seem to be an attractive alternative to eliminate the time and effort of the competitive process. But there are disadvantages.
State contracts are primarily set up to permit many government agencies to easily purchase relatively small quantities of hardware to expand existing systems. State contracts accomplish this goal well, but the discount rates for the equipment are relatively low. For a large new system purchase, a user can always get a significantly lower price when buying it through a competitive process.
State contracts generally do not include services. Therefore, any system purchased with hardware from the state contract will require a separate negotiation for system design and installation services.
A new, complex system purchased through a state contract usually costs as much as 15% more compared to a competitive procurement. Such a purchase comes with no total system supplier responsibility, meaning that subsequent problems may result in a “you got what you paid for” response. The owner may have to pay extra for additional interfaces, sites, programming and training.
The combination owner and system integrator — An owner who purchases equipment through a competitive process and installs it or oversees the installation may succeed with the right internal talent. The owner takes all of the system risk. With complex systems, owners seldom accept such a risk. Some owners are successful using mostly internal resources with some outside consulting help.
Selection of a supplier — Evaluating proposals for a communications system can seem like comparing apples, bananas and oranges even though every potential supplier might claim to meet the requirements of the RFP. A consultant can often point out limitations or extra benefits that may not be readily apparent from the description in the proposal.
Negotiating a contract — There are always things to negotiate before accepting a proposal. “Exceptions” to the requirements will need to be at least clarified and often negotiated. Some description of what was offered may not be clear.
The time to reach a clear understanding is before signing a contract, not later. Some issues are technical, some are legal, and others may fall into some other categories. Use the right talent to address each issue. A good consultant will have the experience to minimize future problems.
Design review and construction monitoring — The system owner needs to assign someone from his organization to serve as the primary project contact, or project manager. A local person is best equipped to handle day-to-day activities during construction. The project manager should know the system architecture, although project management skills are more important than technical knowledge. The more capable and available the owner’s project manager is, the less support is required from the consultant.
Once operational, the new system will need an administrator.
A consultant can assist the owner with the job definition and selection process of the project manager, the administrator or both.
Regular project meetings conducted during construction ensure that the schedule is maintained and that requirements are being met. The contractor, the owner and the consultant should be represented in these project meetings.
Verifying the system — After construction, the contractor should demonstrate system compliance with the requirements. The owner’s project manager should be involved with every compliance demonstration because he will receive the questions from users later. The consultant brings experience from other tests and demonstrations. Typically, a user representative participates along with the contractor, consultant and project manager in acceptance testing.
Parity of business dealings — In earlier, simpler times, all of the system components (telephones, 9-1-1, CAD, RMS and radio) were less integrated (independently replaceable) and more modestly priced boxes. Today, virtually all elements are computerized, more integrated with other system elements and more costly. They should be viewed as a utility-embedded investment. A more formal relationship between the owner and supplier is appropriate to ensure that parity of rights exists.
‘Protection of life and property’ laws — In all states, that law articulates in some form that “in order to protect the public interest of life, limb and property a certified, licensed professional shall review and seal design documents.” Public safety communications systems warrant this same level of certification.
Would a public works supervisor handle the implementation of a landfill operation, or would the water treatment supervisor handle the implementation of a new water plant without outside, professional help? The answer to both is no. Trained, licensed professionals are needed.
A system owner faces many decisions and actions throughout the process of constructing a new communications system. Many will fall outside of his employees’ day-to-day work experience and will require more time than they have available; thus, outside help is required. A registered, professional communications consultant has the experience and knowledge to help smooth this process. Money spent on the consulting service will ensure:
- lower risk of contractual disputes and bad publicity.
- better taxpayer value for the system dollars spent.
If a professional consultant doesn’t save the owner more than his fees, he isn’t fulfilling his role properly.
About the authors
Watkins is a senior consulting engineer with Frederick G. Griffin, P.C. He is a member of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials–International, and he spent 26 years in mobile radio with General Electric. He also served as vice president of technology with Allen Telecom.
Griffin, is president of Frederick G. Griffin, P.C., a nationwide consulting firm based in Lynchburg, VA. He is a member of APCO, the National Emergency Number Association and the Radio Club of America. He is a past president of Association of Federal Communications Consulting Engineers.
Frederick G. Griffin, P.C., provides consulting services to local, state and federal government agencies in the areas of radio, coaxial and fiber optic for voice, data and video transmission. Tel. 804-237-2044; fax 804-237-6063; email [email protected]