Many police and fire agencies across Butler County eschewed the county’s $10 million replacement contract with Motorola in favor of a wait and see approach. Several departments have been testing Kenwood radios as a cheaper alternative. New information has come out that software for the old Motorola radios could cause critical errors in the next couple years.

Safety of Butler County residents challenged again with radio issues

The West Chester Twp. trustees were poised to approve an $800,000-plus agreement to replace 235 emergency radios Tuesday, and Fairfield is searching for $600,000 in its budget to do the same.

More than one year ago the county faced a $19.2 million bill to replace the obsolete public safety communications system and about 3,000 radios that sheriff’s deputies, police, firefighters and others all carry. Motorola has stopped making the old radios and won’t service them beyond this year. Some local cities, townships and other jurisdictions balked at the $12.5 million radio bill — the county’s share was estimated at $3.5 million — and began looking for cheaper alternatives.

Few jurisdictions agreed to buy into the bulk replacement deal so the commissioners approved a revised $10 million agreement with the communication equipment giant for the infrastructure and 1,000 radios.

RELATED: Butler County getting $1.5 million refund from Motorola

The county’s largest township was one of the first to say they didn’t need a bulk replacement. And Dennis Dick, West Chester’s Communications Center operations manager, still maintains they didn’t need to replace the “sturdy” radios themselves immediately, but potential software issues caused him to reconsider his stance on the purchase.

“The last thing we want is for any kind of update or change to happen that limits our ability to use these radios for public safety,” Dick told the Journal-News.

He said they met with the county about three months ago and learned planned software upgrades in 2019 and 2021 could potentially render the old radios useless and they didn’t want to lose out on the half-price deal the county negotiated.

Sheriff’s Capt. Matt Franke said they have told the jurisdictions they believe the software upgrade next year shouldn’t have a huge impact on the local radios but the one in 2021 likely will.

“The core issue is the compatibility of the software in the radios versus the software that’s running the infrastructure, the entire radio system,” Franke said.

The county got it’s radios half price from Motorola and that rate will be good to the other jurisdictions through the end of the year. The actual price the jurisdictions pay can vary depending on the accessories they buy, Franke said, but the base radio price is $3,683.

Dick said without the discount, West Chester taxpayers would have had to pay almost $1.2 million for the replacement. The trustees set aside $132,000 this year for radio replacement and officials say they have money to cover the full replacement.

Fairfield City Manager Mark Wendling said they are trying to figure out where they can find $600,000 in their budget this year because they don’t want to miss out on the county discount. The city originally budgeted a full replacement over 2019 and 2020, but Wendling said now they’ll need the money sooner.

MORE: Some jurisdictions testing cheaper emergency radios

Liberty Twp. Trustee President Tom Farrell said they are still studying the issue but said if it is true the software could become an issue they will purchase replacements. He had strong words for Motorola.

“We feel as though we’re being held ransom by Motorola. This is safety and people’s lives at stake and they can just walk away and say well they’re not going to be compatible anymore, spend a couple billion dollars worldwide,” Farrell said. “Everybody is a little bit concerned and upset that a vendor would do that with lives at stake. They need to be more responsible if they are going to be in this business.”

When asked to respond to Farrell’s criticism Motorola sent a statement that did not address the comment.

The Butler County Fire Chiefs Association is going to apply for a federal Assistance to Firefighters grant to cover some of the cost for radio replacement. But Liberty Fire Chief Ethan Klussman said they can’t apply for AFG money until the fiscal year 2019 funding cycle because “there is a significant amount of required information that we need to work out prior to applying.”

In Middletown Fire Chief Paul Lolli said Motorola has indicated the software for the radios will be “maintained” at least through 2020. So they are going to wait and see what happens with the grant. It would cost about $400,000 to replace fire department radios. He said the police department is budgeting for new radios next year and over the next few years.

“In division of fire we’re just not ready to pull the plug on it,” Lolli said. “Our intentions are we may jump into this AFG grant request and if we would be lucky enough to receive that, it would be a considerable savings.”

If the grant doesn’t come through Lolli said the fire department will likely begin budgeting for the radios in 2020.

Monroe Police Chief Bob Buchanan said they are still on the replace-as-needed schedule. He said they are cognizant of the software issue but not ready for a full replacement.

“It’s always a concern,” he said. “It’s one of those things where we balance the risk with the need. But we believe we have options to get through on the short term and then replace the radios if it does become a problem.”

Hamilton officials did not respond about what they plan to do and the Fairfield Twp. administrator said she couldn’t comment because the trustees haven’t discussed the issue.

When the other governments didn’t join the purchase package en mass County Administrator Charlie Young negotiated a deal to return the 250 extra radios for a $1.5 million refund. He said it is his understanding if all of the jurisdictions decided to replace their radios this year — that number would well exceed the 250 returned radios — the price will stand.

“I believe that any of the jurisdictions that make the decision and the financial commitment by the end of this year can enjoy that lower price,” he said. “And that’s longer than what Motorola was required by contract to commit to.”

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