The county's emergency radio system is now in a state of emergency.
With many of the county's chiefs of police crowding its Norristown meeting chamber, the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution Wednesday declaring that an "actual emergency exists" in the county's aging public safety telecommunications infrastructure.
Commissioner Jim Matthews described the measure as a "Band-Aid" that gives the county "the ability to immediately respond to any shortcomings in the system."
Those shortcomings are reportedly multiplying. Lower Gwynedd Chief of Police John Scholly called the increasing difficulty of obtaining replacement parts for the system a "major concern."
"There are parts of the county radio system that are as old as our analog radios. We're deeply concerned that if any part of that should go down, there could be catastrophic results affecting not only police, but also fire and EMS," Scholly said.
The core components of the system were implemented in 1996 and have been in continuous operation since. Motorola, the system's manufacturer, announced in December 2010 that it would no longer provide replacement parts or other support for the system.
On Sept. 20, a backup paging terminal – described as a "critical component of the system – failed during what county public safety director Tom Sullivan called "routine testing." Because Motorola no longer provides those components, the county was forced to immediately purchase a used replacement part on the resale market for $8,000.
Sullivan said the public was never in any danger as a result of the Sept. 20 equipment failure.
Under the county code, the state of emergency empowers the county to "enter into such contracts as may be necessary" to obtain whatever goods and services are needed to keep the existing system operational.
The question of a long-term replacement for the system remains unresolved. Public safety officials solicited information from eighteen vendors earlier this month and received responses from four of them. Two of those, Harris and Motorola, made preliminary proposals.
The next step, Sullivan said, is to hire a consultant to help the county develop a formal request for proposals (RFPs). That process would take six months and involve consultation with most of the county's police departments and other emergency services.
Commissioner Joe Hoeffel expressed frustration with the slow pace of the process, citing initial discussions that began last year.
"This is taking a long, long time," Hoeffel said. "I had no idea it was going to take at least a year and a half to get a RFP in the field."
Bruce Castor, the only sitting commissioner who is running for re-election, expressed concerns about the selection of an appropriate consultant to help the county formulate the RFP.
"How are we going to make sure the [consultant] we pick is going to give us advice worth acting on?" Castor said.
Matthews stressed the need for "full transparency" and "full discovery" for a purchase that is expected to cost taxpayers at least $50 million.
"A future Board of Commissioners is going to have to find the money, but it's better to have the information you need in your hand and then decide how to spend the money to get there than to get to the point where you need to spend money and not have the answers at your fingertips," Matthews said.
"I think we're setting the table for the next administration, whoever that might be, to make a lucid decision," Matthews said.