By Joyce M. Miles
Niagara Gazette — Apparent oversights by a company paid nearly $600,000 to manage Niagara County's emergency communication system upgrade may end up costing taxpayers an additional $330,000.
As it turns out, power lines in Lewiston, an industrial smokestack in Niagara Falls and a tree in Gasport are blocking line-of-sight microwave communication between radio towers in the seven-tower upgrade plan.
Now, county officials say, new towers being constructed at the Upper Mountain, North Tonawanda/Gratwick Hose and Terry's Corners fire stations will have to be taller than 180 feet, the height that's written into the plan that was sold to the county — which could add $330,000 to the $10 million project.
Officials are taken aback by the news.
County Legislator David Godfrey, R-Wilson, chairman of the legislature's communtiy safety and security committee, said it's not just the extent of sudden tower "growth" that bothers him, it's also upgrade project manager L.R. Kimball & Associates' explanation for why that growth is necessary.
In a nutshell, he said, the experts who designed the system didn't account for some signal-blocking objects between towers.
The North Tonawanda tower may have to grow by 125 feet, to 305 feet tall, in order to communicate with the existing tower atop Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center. It's because the Covanta waste-to-energy factory smokestack is between them, Godfrey was told.
Kimball & Associates also advised that the tower at Upper Mountain fire station in Lewiston needs to grow by 50 feet, to 230 feet tall, to avoid signal disruption by power lines; and that the tower at Terry's Corners fire station in Royalton Center needs to grow by 20 feet, to 200 feet tall, because of a large tree nearby.
"These people drove around the whole county, drove around and drove around, and they didn't see these things?" Godfrey said. "Some line-of-sight issues may not have been discoverable (during the planning/project bidding process); perhaps the tree and the smokestack weren't clearly visible when technicians were standing at the sites. ...
"What we're being told about the Upper Mountain site, I'm having a difficult time with that. It's in the middle of the Power Project. How could anyone miss those lines?"
The county took on the system upgrade in conjunction with narrowbanding, a Federal Communications Commission-required move by public radio users to the narrow band of the broadcast spectrum. The upgrade will improve radio coverage and facilitate interoperability among emergency responder agencies including police, fire and public works. Motorola Solutions has the contract to install the infrastructure and supply the radio equipment.
The upgrade is being funded with a $6.8 million long-term loan, Homeland Security grants and the county's cut of a state E-911 surcharge on phones. Spending over and above $10 million would have to be covered with county fund balance, County Manager Jeffrey Glatz said this week.
Adding tower height adds significantly to the project cost because the blueprints have to be revised for each affected tower. The taller the tower, the thicker the concrete foundation and stronger the steel base have to be, according to Godfrey.
Kimball & Associates is working with Motorola and the microwave vendor to minimize the height increases, especially on the North Tonawanda tower, he said.
The county's Generic Environmental Impact Statement on the project is based on tower heights of no more than 300 feet.
Glatz said he doesn't think the proposed construction changes would throw the statement into question, but Godfrey isn't so sure.
As for the cost overruns, officials are questioning whether the county should hold Kimball & Associates and/or Motorola responsible.
Kimball & Associates is overseeing the upgrade project on a two-year, $580,000 contract. Among its duties as project manager, it prepared the bid specifications for the system buildout and scrutinized bids for feasibility.
"We know there are surprises along the way, that's construction, but some of these changes are disturbing," Godfrey said.
The construction changes likely will cause a delay in unveiling of the new communication system, the officials said. The system was supposed to be operational by the end of this year, while the county still has a one-year FCC waiver on narrowbanding compliance. Another waiver can be sought, Glatz said.
Motorola won the county's emergency radio upgrade business in December 2011, after months of informal, then formal, bidding that pitted it against Rochester-based Harris Corporation. The competing vendors offered different systems, both originally priced around $20 million. Kimball worked with the vendors to tweak their plans and cut their prices.
The back-and-forth brought Motorola's "last, best offer" down to $15 million, and Harris' to $12 million, which the Legislature was poised to take — until Motorola cried foul over the county's lack of formal bid specifications, meaning a statement of what, exactly, it wanted built.
In response to a later formal Request For Proposals, Harris again offered its $12 million system and Motorola proposed a $7.3 million system.
Motorola is furnishing new portable radios for all firefighters and police officers in the county, and related equipment, for another $2 million.