Twice this year, the Knox County E-911 Board has declined to approve an almost $9 million contract that would replace E-911 communication operations.
The bidding process took nine months and officials expect to restart it in January. Then, it could take another year to get something new in place.
Some officials say they are upset and disappointed about the board’s failure to move on the contract.
Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero, an E-911 Board member, said: “Our first responders in the field are relying on increasingly outmoded technology, which puts them and the general public at risk. I hope the board can work quickly to identify our next steps in a way that is transparent and responsive to the needs of our public safety agencies.”
But, the area’s top cop disagrees. He says local emergency personnel and Knox County residents are safe.
“We all know that it needs to be upgraded, and we all know that there needs to be some changes but it isn’t like the public is in jeopardy or any officers are in jeopardy,” said Sheriff Jones. “There are replacement parts – the radio system is not in shambles.”
MORE: Letter from Motorola sent to E-911 Board members
He added: “There’s been so much representation that this radio system is on its last leg, smoking, dying, getting ready to implode, and that’s just in fact not true.”
At issue is the E-911 Board's quest to replace the current emergency broadcasting analog radio system with a 20-channel digital one that would also meet a number of federal recommendations such as allowing multiple responding agencies, such as police, fire and medical, to communicate amongst themselves.
Harris Communications won the bidding process earlier this year, but the board has declined to sign off on a contract.
Jones on Monday was one of five E-911 Board members who voted against supporting Harris. Instead, he and others on the board want to hook onto the state-operated system that uses Motorola Solutions equipment – the same equipment that has served the E-911 Center for more than 25 years.
He called joining the state system – Tennessee Valley Regional Communications System that is based in Chattanooga – “the wave of the future.”
“Criminals don’t know any boundaries,” he said. “If they’re breaking into your house on Alcoa Highway, it could be Blount County, Knox County or inside the city limits, so me being able to communicate with another agency, to me, is ideal and that’s where I want to go when we start talking about this again. I want to be part of a state-wide system where we can talk to any other agency when we need to, to do our jobs on a daily basis."
When asked whether the long wait to put a new system in place would be an issue, the sheriff said he wouldn’t put his personnel on the streets “with a system that didn’t work.”
Jones also turned over a letter from Motorola’s vice president to WBIR 10News that detailed the current system’s performance. The letter was sent to all E-911 Board members and sheds more insight into why some board members don’t appear worried about a breakdown.
“The system performance is measured by a percentage of reliability. Since initial installation in the late 1980s this reliability factor has been measured at 99.99983 percent, which is higher than both the current and proposed contract require,” wrote Motorola’s VP Randy Johnson.
Johnson added that – despite reports to the contrary – the county has a “substantial inventory of spare and replacements costs at no charge (for) Knox County.”
“The system is in no eminent danger of failure,” Johnson told board members in the letter.
On Monday, E-911 Center officials also downplayed several cases in the past couple of months in which radio system circuit boards blew, forcing emergency dispatchers to communicate with emergency personnel via handheld radios.
Again on Thursday, Jackie York, a communications unit supervisor, said it was still “business as usual” for a few hours, except dispatchers used radios rather than hand-free headsets.
“It’s just the matter of doing basically the same thing in a different way,” she said.
She said the overall operation also has enough back up parts, so that the “operations of Knox County continue on without interruption.
“We can still talk to officers and we can still talk to the public,” she added.
E-911 Board members meet again in January to discuss the re-bidding process.