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Static In Olympia Over Wash. State Patrol Radio Upgrade

OLYMPIA, Wash. – Just like the rest of us, police officers use cell phones and smart phones. But in an emergency, they still rely on old-fashioned two-way radios to communicate.

In Washington, the State Patrol is about to upgrade that radio system to meet new federal standards. The $26 million contract went to Motorola with no opportunity for other companies to bid. Now the project is under fierce criticism from a tech-savvy Washington state lawmaker.

If you were to look inside a police squad car these days and you’ll likely see a computer terminal. But this is the sound you’ll hear.

“Are you still in the area with that commercial trooper ...”

The police radio remains a lifeline for officers. And there’s no indication that’s about to change anytime soon.

“What we have in front of us is one of the new portable radios that we will be deploying to the troopers,” says Bob Schwent. He is the guru of two-way radios at the Washington State Patrol.

He’s showing me a $6,000 Motorola walkie-talkie that troopers will soon carry on their belts. This new model has all sorts of bells and whistles including a GPS locator.

“So that if the officer is in trouble they can push the emergency button and the system -- when we get it fully deployed -- will put their location on a map.”

Over the next nine months, the State Patrol will issue more than 2,000 of these high-tech radios to troopers across Washington. One advantage of this new radio system: state troopers will be able to talk more easily with other police agencies in an emergency.

Patrol cars and dispatch centers will also get new equipment. And the State Patrol will install a state-of-the-art communications hub near Yakima. The upgrade is designed to meet a January 1st 2013 federal deadline to free up space on the radio spectrum. The term is Narrowbanding.

In Washington, Motorola Solutions won the $26 million contract to do the work -– without having to compete with other companies. That bothers State Representative Reuven Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat.

“Well, I think it’s safe to say that in state government no one ever loses their job for buying from Motorola or Cisco or the big, big companies that are the vendors,” Carlyle says.

Carlyle’s background is in the wireless industry. He says there’s already talk of a day when police radios operate on 3G or 4G wireless networks. He knows we’re not there yet, but that day could be right around the corner.

“The public, I think, can understand that a two-way radio for police, fire or EMS in this state costs anywhere from $5,000 to $7,000 and that same radio has less processing power than a $100 iPhone," Carlyle says. "It just doesn’t make sense.”

This year, Carlyle tried to halt the State Patrol’s radio system upgrade. He wanted an independent technical review of all the options even though the state had already signed the contract with Motorola. But Governor Chris Gregoire vetoed that study.

Motorola’s lobbyist in Washington is the governor’s former chief of staff Cindy Zehnder. Zehnder insists she did not lobby for the no-bid contract or the governor’s veto.

For its part, the State Patrol says it contracted with Motorola because Motorola is the vendor for a federal Department of Justice radio network that’s already up and running in the Northwest. Capt. Jason Berry says his agency decided to piggyback on the federal system partly to save money.

“At the end of the day we get a system done, we’re compliant by the deadline and we save the taxpayers $12 million," Berry says. "To me that’s good government right there.”

But the story and the controversy over Motorola’s role doesn’t end there. The federal radio system Washington in connecting to was the subject of a critical Inspector General report earlier this year. Specifically, the audit noted the system in place here in the Northwest –- with its reliance on a single vendor, Motorola -– is not equipped to adapt to significant advances in new technologies.

On the Web:

Washington State Patrol:

Motorola two-way radios:

Bob Schwent of the Washington State Patrol with a new $6,800 Motorola portable radio that troopers will soon carry. Photo by Austin Jenkins
Bob Schwent of the Washington State Patrol with a new $6,800 Motorola portable radio that troopers will soon carry. Photo by Austin Jenkins

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.