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DuPage officials hail completion of 9-1-1 radio project

Updated: November 11, 2012 6:08AM

First responders and other public safety people in DuPage County are speaking freely — a lot more so than they did in the past — and that change could help save lives.

The Emergency Telephone System Board’s new $30 million interoperable radio project, now fully online, has opened wider the lines of communication among some 63 agencies in the county and the 3,300 people who staff them.

Officials celebrated the more ready flow of information with a press conference Tuesday morning, hailing the end of a long road that has had myriad twists and turns.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said Jim Rasins, former county auditor and a citizen representative on the eight-member board. “It’s pretty darn expensive.”

Authorities are relieved to have the job done. They recalled an incident four years ago when the system could have been a literal lifesaver. That emergency was a three-hour standoff at the Wheaton Bank & Trust Co. involving a dozen hostages and culminating in gunman Michael Ray Long, a 41-year-old Wheaton resident and father of two, taking his own life.

“Officers were forced to use hand signals as a way to communicate during the event,” said DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin, also citing the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks as a time when cutting-edge communication between responders could have saved lives.

Board vice chairman and Hinsdale Police Chief Brad Bloom noted that the radio project reflects the “team environment” that is public safety’s reality now.

“It’s no longer one municipality, one police department, one fire department acting by itself,” said Bloom, who has served on the board for most of the past decade.

Money matters

The project could have cost much more than it did, according to county officials. The board scrapped its initial vision, conceived more than six years ago, that had the county constructing and operating its own system. A $7.1 million contract for the network that was awarded to sole bidder Motorola in August 2006 soon shot up to $13.7 million when the project drew unanticipated interest and change orders were processed.

Board members were aware early in the discussions that the price tag eventually could exceed $40 million, meeting records show. It was when the projections reached $48 million and continued to climb that officials agreed to shift to a subscriber-based network, also run by Motorola, that covers 98 percent of Illinois. That system, known as State Radio Voice Communications for the 21st Century, or STARCOM 21, uses existing infrastructure manufactured by the electronics giant. It is compatible with the $20 million radio system purchased jointly by Naperville and Aurora, which are not part of the ETSB network.

County Board member Pat O’Shea, until recently the ETSB’s chairman, hailed the April 2010 subscription decision at Tuesday’s gathering.

“That’s the day that things changed in DuPage County,” he said.

O’Shea, who at one point projected the subscriber arrangement would cost no more than about $20 million, said the county-owned system would have run close to $54 million.

Aside from $2.35 million in federal grant funds, the radio project is funded with surcharges collected for wireless telephone lines. That revenue stream is scheduled to dry up in April 2013, however. County Board member JR McBride, who replaced O’Shea recently at the board helm, and Cronin are working to enlist state lawmakers’ help in finding funding.

“There are legislative initiatives under way,” said Linda Zerwin, executive director of the ETSB.


McBride and Cronin acknowledged the project’s high final cost, saying the board was dealing with a lot of unknown quantities when the decisions were made.

“It’s such a major undertaking, and what has happened is you’re trying to get all these first responders on the same radio program,” McBride said. “Each has its own quirks and needs.

“In general, nobody really understood what each was going to need in order to take part in the whole master plan.”

Cronin said Motorola was “remiss” in not explaining fully how long the project would take to implement or how much cost it would involve.

“I explored whether we could find them in breach, whether we could go back and change some things,” Cronin said, adding that the State’s Attorney’s office said the circumstances did not meet the legal definition of contract violation.

Beyond that, he wasn’t laying blame.

“I just think to do the job was more complex than they’d anticipated,” Cronin said.

Cronin said the new system was useful during the recent Ryder Cup golf tournament at Medinah Country Club in DuPage, and during the NATO summit in Chicago in May.

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