RFP in works for county’s new emergency communications system

By EVAN YOUNG

St. Louis County officials hope to issue a request for proposals to construct the infrastructure of a new emergency communications system by this April or May.

In the meantime, they await the go-ahead from the County Council to spend the first $2 million collected from a new sales tax on staff and consultant services for the system.

The council was scheduled to consider final approval Tuesday, after press time, of a bill that appropriates $2,004,679 to the Emergency Communications Commission.

Councilmen unanimously granted initial approval to the legislation last week.

Of that amount, $504,679 would fund salaries and benefits of six ECC employees, and $1.5 million would be used to pay a consultant to help the county prepare the RFP, said Garry Earls, the county’s chief operating officer and ECC member.

Roughly 68 percent of county voters supported Proposition E-911, an 0.1-percent sales tax, last November. The measure received 93,387 “yes” votes and 44,470 “no” votes, according to the county Board of Election Commissioners.

The tax will fund the construction and operation of a new countywide interoperable radio system, a 911 call center upgrade and an overhaul of the county’s emergency sirens.

Earls said the county will begin to see revenue from the new sales tax in April.

He predicted the tax will generate $10 million this year. Officials previously have said the tax would generate an ongoing revenue stream of up to $16 million a year.

Once the initial $2 million appropriation wins council approval, the ECC next will ask councilmen to approve a contract with Virginia-based RCC Consultants, which will help prepare the county’s RFP and serve as a “foreman” once a vendor is hired to construct the new system’s infrastructure, ECC Chair Chief Bill Karabas said.

The ECC also will seek the County Council’s approval of an estimated $116 million bond issue to fund the commission’s capital budget, the debt from which would be paid over 20 years with E-911 tax revenue, he said.

“It’s our best guess at this point,” Karabas said of the ECC’s draft capital budget of $116,750,000. “We really won’t know until we do select a vendor from the bids they will submit to build these three components. But we think it’s pretty close.”

Earls said the county plans to team up with St. Charles and Jefferson counties, which have new communication systems in the works and also have selected RCC Consultants. The three counties’ communications systems will be interconnected once they’re constructed, he added.

While the bidding process for the county’s RFP consultant was strictly qualifications-based, bidding for a contractor to construct the new communications system will be both price-driven and qualifications-based, Earls said.

That’s because the new system will be somewhat of a design-build project, where one vendor handles both design and construction, he added.

“We’re allowing them the option of innovating in this without specifying exactly where all the towers have to go,” Earls told councilmen during a caucus last week. “We’re giving them options on how they can build out the system, either using existing towers or building new ones, either using fiber-optics or microwave to get from place to place. So there are lots of options inside this, given the terrain and built-up nature of our community.

“We think the private sector will be able to drive a better deal for us overall than us just standing on the outside and arbitrarily picking a design for this. So the design will be left to the vendor in this process.”

The Federal Communications Commission has set a Dec. 31, 2012, deadline for all public safety personnel to switch their radios to higher frequencies.

On Jan. 1, 2013, the FCC will narrow-band existing frequencies, which in St. Louis County will “absolutely do major harm in our ability to do operations day to day,” Earls said.

The FCC has reserved some 60 new frequencies for the county, which will work on new radio equipment the county plans to buy for fire and police personnel, Earls said.

He said the new radio system tentatively is scheduled to be up and running by late 2012, but officials may have to ask the FCC to delay narrow-banding the county’s existing frequencies until the system is fully operational.

“We’re hopeful that we can show them that we’re making great progress — that voters have voted to support this, we’ve taken all the right steps, we’ve hired the right people, we’re in the process of construction,” Earls said. “So if we’re off by a couple of months, one way or another, we can delay that for the frequencies we use here today.”