Baltimore County, where are you? Police, fire radio system has bugs

October 04, 1990|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Evening Sun Staff

Imagine paying nearly 85 percent of the cost of a fancy new car, but not being able to drive it.

That's not unlike the situation Baltimore County officials find themselves in. They're unable to use a brand new, $32 million 800 megahertz communications system because of communications software that won't fully function.

The software is at the heart of the ambitious police and fire communications system that officials say will be unique once it's operating.

But it isn't operating. It was supposed to go on line Jan. 31, but didn't. Several more deadlines passed, as well.

Yesterday, Frank C. Robey Jr., the county administrative officer, and a Motorola official, Dick Day, explained why the system won't work and announced an agreement between the parties that will keep them from a court battle.

Robey said the county had agreed to wait until Jan. 18, 1991, for the first part of the system to be delivered by Motorola, with the remaining portion of it to go on line by Aug. 18, 1991.

In return, the county has halted further payments to Motorola until the job is finished. It still owes $4.8 million to Motorola, the designer of the system and supplier of radio and computer equipment.

County officials have already spent $27.1 million on the system for hardware and services -- $22.1 million to Motorola.

In addition, the county spent $3 million to build a new 911 communications center in the County Courts Building and to construct a series of eight radio towers throughout the county.

"We intend to cooperate with Motorola," said Robey.

A number of the features of the new system, such as the on-board computers, high-band radios and Automatic Vehicle Locator, or AVL, have been functioning since last year, but the entire package has yet to be fully integrated, according to Robey and Day.

The software that would guide these different functions contains "millions of lines of code," said Day, and bugs within the program remain. He blamed a subcontractor who wrote the software for not following the proper test procedures when checking out the system.

Now, said Day, Motorola has brought in its own people to test the software and work out the bugs.

The software in question runs the Computer Assisted Dispatch, or CAD, system, the brainpower and data banks that Day described as the "glue that holds everything together."

Although police and fire officials were hoping to upgrade their patchwork, low-band communications system as far back as 1984, it was the January 1987 Amtrak train accident in Chase that prompted the then newly elected county executive, Dennis F. Rasmussen, to push for the upgrade.

Sixteen people died after a high-speed Amtrak passenger train slammed into a Conrail freight train that had rolled through a switch. During the rescue efforts, police and fire officials could not communicate with one another.

County voters approved a $10 million bond issue in the November 1986 election and Rasmussen -- pressured by the Federal Communications Commission to use or lose its 20 800 megahertz channels -- borrowed another $18 million to pay for it.

Robey said the agreement calls for "penalties" if Motorola fails to meet the new deadlines. As to the nature of the penalties, he said "that is still being negotiated."

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