WASHINGTON — It was just one piece of equipment in an intricate emergency digital radio network, but the 2005 purchase of a Motorola master controller by California’s Alameda County started an often nasty intra-governmental tug of war that has worn on for nearly nine years.
The purchase all but assured that a new two-county communications system would be built by Motorola.
And those who resisted paid a price.
Three communications specialists in neighboring Contra Costa County were allegedly pushed out of their government jobs when they objected to cities scrapping their fully functioning emergency radio systems to join the expensive new Motorola network.
Oakland, Alameda County’s largest city and the biggest holdout, found itself squeezed out of millions of dollars in desperately needed federal grant money after it refused to join.
The battle touched the cities of Richmond, Piedmont and Pittsburg and the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, which like Oakland used equipment made by M/A-Com Inc.
What happened during the formation of the emergency radio network at the eastern end of the San Francisco Bay Area might be an extreme example, but it offers insight into the strains created by a push from Washington to build new regional systems to connect every first responder.
Alameda County’s initial purchase of the $2 million-plus master controller, or switch, set the new East Bay Regional Communications System Authority on a course that fell short of that goal. Because the switch contained proprietary features that prevented interaction with non-Motorola equipment, it put up new barriers to radio access for first responders in some cities.
William McCammon, a retired Alameda County fire chief who now runs the East Bay network, said in a phone interview that after the switch was purchased, an engineering consultant recommended that the rest of the system be acquired from the same manufacturer, and discounts were negotiated with Motorola.
McCammon and other East Bay leaders soon turned up the pressure on local governments to join and forsake equipment made by other manufacturers, even if Motorola’s equipment was pricy and they’d have to pay $100 annual user fees for each radio hooked to the network.
“The conflict was horrible,” said Mike Johnson, a retired Oakland police lieutenant who was assigned to the department’s 911 emergency call center between 2007 and 2010. “I would go to meetings, and this board of directors for (East Bay) . . . would call Oakland all kinds of names.”
McCammon and Rich Lucia, Alameda County’s undersheriff, made the rounds to press local city councils to join in the changeover, he said.
For cash-strapped Oakland, which was among the first cities to embrace the national campaign, the East Bay authority’s proprietary nature was an ironic and bittersweet twist. The city’s technology chief, Bob Glaze, had begun in 2005 to buy radios that met new uniform national design standards, known as P25, which eliminated proprietary features.
Glaze said that Motorola representatives didn’t take well to his initiative. When one of them insisted that the P25 radios wouldn’t work, Glaze said, he sent technicians packing several radios to Arizona for testing.
“They worked flawlessly,” said Glaze, who is now retired.
Glaze said he first learned that the East Bay contract seemed to favor Motorola while serving on a technical evaluation panel. Randall Hagar, deputy information technology chief for the county’s General Services Agency, told the panel that the office of County Sheriff Charles Plummer wanted the proprietary switch purchased, he said.
Hagar added that “we can’t tell the sheriff how he’s going to spend his money,” Glaze recalled.
Glaze said that he knew Motorola’s proprietary equipment wouldn’t connect with the P25 radios with which he’d been experimenting and would gum up public safety communications between the city and both counties.
McCammon and Lucia each denied having any role in the purchase of the Motorola switch, and no one has yet fessed up to the decision.
A spokesman for Motorola declined to comment on the events surrounding the East Bay authority.
By 2008, Oakland’s upgraded system, which also served Piedmont and Berkeley, was recognized in Washington as P25 compliant. East Bay was still years away from complying, but it received most of the federal grant dollars, and Oakland got little.
In Richmond, two police department tech workers who voiced objections to joining the new system as being too costly were moved out of their radio jobs, Glaze recalled. He did not identify them.
Steve Overacker, who was Contra Costa County’s telecommunications manager, said he complained to his bosses about the cost of the new system and shared his concerns with the city council of Pittsburg, where he lived.
But McCammon and Jim Nichols, a former Alameda County sheriff's deputy who was assisting the county, showed up at a Pittsburg City Council meeting and advised members that Overacker had twisted the facts. They stressed the importance of regional networks and persuaded the council to vote in favor of joining.
Overacker said he was soon warned that his job was in danger. He decided to take a position in a nearby county.
McCammon denied seeking reprisals against anyone who opposed the new network.
People “can argue all day about how Motorola got it,” McCammon said of the East Bay contract. “The fact is, they did. It’s here, it’s working, and I think it’s a pretty cost-effective alternative for those agencies that are using it.”
How cost effective the system is may be open to debate. While a consultant projected that the network would serve nearly 22,000 radios, only about 13,000 are on line, and the system’s cost has grown from $58 million to $70 million. It will exceed $100 million when all the radios are purchased.
Over the last couple of years, East Bay finally knocked down the proprietary barriers, acquiring software enabling P25 radios to work on its system.
Recently, a consulting firm recommended that the city of Oakland join the East Bay network.
Mulvany is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GregGordon2