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Wivell has a point on bids for new fire-rescue radio system

February 07, 2006

There is little doubt that Washington County needs a new communication system for fire, rescue and police operations. It's the estimated cost of $20 million and the way the contract is being negotiated that raises concerns.

Few, if any, doubt the need for a new system to replace the current one, which is 30 years old. After an April 2002 disaster drill at Hagerstown Regional Airport, fire officials said that due to an insufficient number of frequencies, fire and rescue workers were interfering with each other's transmissions.

In June 2002, Sheriff Charles Mades said his department's system was so old it was getting tough to find replacement parts.

At the time the sheriff made his statement, the new system had an estimated cost of $10 million. By the following January, when the County Commissioners heard another presentation on the system, the estimate had increased to between $12 million and $18 million.

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Now the cost could top $20 million, depending on what price is negotiated by a committee that the commissioners named to do that task.

In a weekend interview, Commissioner William Wivell said the process is just as flawed as the one the Board of Education used to award design contracts for new schools.

School Board members said the decision was made based on the quality of the proposals rather than price. Officials of a company that wasn't chosen claimed that the quality-based method had added $700,000 in costs.

Wivell said there's not much difference between what the School Board did and what the commissioners authorized a committee to do last week.

Other commissioners and county staff disagreed, saying that the communications system proposal is much more complex. And designing a school isn't?

But we are more troubled by the fact that the county government hasn't released a consultant's report on the new system, or revealed the names of the companies submitting proposals.

We would like to see the consultant's report, because although it was undoubtedly done with the utmost professionalism, we still remember a 400-page, $90,000 study of fire-rescue operations done in the 1990s that had little to say on key topics, such as whether or not there should be a fire tax.

As for the names of the firms, we don't pretend to have the expertise to analyze complex proposals for sophisticated radio equipment.

However, we and the commissioners could contact officials from other areas where the firms have done business. You need not know the technical details of how a system functions to form an opinion about how well it works at a fire scene.

Wivell is correct to ask for more details and to assert that it's the commissioners' duty to try to understand what they're getting when they're paying with taxpayers' dollars.

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