Miami-Dade County

Mayday! Mayday! Communications giants in fight over Miami’s emergency radio networks

Motorola equipment in a patrol car.
Motorola equipment in a patrol car. McClatchy

Throughout the annals of history, there have been sworn enemies renowned for their blood feuds.

Think Hatfields and McCoys, Sharks and Jets — and Harris Corp. and Motorola Solutions.

For years, these two communications giants have warred for government contracts, fighting over everything from massive deals to provide radio systems to the FBI and Army down to comparatively piddling municipal contracts. In South Florida, where police, firefighters and emergency dispatchers rely on the systems for communication, the picture is the same.

Now, as Miami and Miami Beach push to overhaul what they say are outdated radio networks, the two companies are dueling over contracts worth millions. Harris, by far the smaller of the two companies, is poised to win a seven-year, $11 million contract in Miami, which currently uses a Motorola system. Across the causeway, where a solicitation is still pending, the two competitors are the only bidders offering to install a new 800 MHz P25 public safety radio system, including microphones, towers and back-of-house equipment.

The competition is stiff: In Miami, where commissioners must vote to approve Harris’ contract and a proposal to finance the new system, the solicitation has led to allegations of political bias and an ethics investigation — problems that threaten to complicate the implementation of new systems.

“Harris and Motorola are the Coke and Pepsi of this industry. They have fought over radio contracts for years at every level of government,” the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board wrote last year as the competitors went after an annual $7 million radio “refresh” for Florida’s law enforcement agencies. “Whichever wins the new contract, however, matters less than that those who will use the system and the public that will finance it get their money's worth.”

In Miami, where nine radio system failures were documented in the first half of 2016, Motorola claims it lost out on a recommendation to install a new system because a selection committee convened by the city was stacked in Harris’ favor. In a February letter to the city’s purchasing officer, Motorola lobbyist Ron Book argued that two biased members of the committee from outside the city ensured that Harris would win the contract.

One member, a radio technician supervisor for the city of Coral Gables, never disclosed that he’d appeared (without compensation) in a Harris promotional video, Book argued. Another out of Hialeah — a city the company’s reps claim has a rocky contract with Motorola due to complicated political relationships unrelated to performance — tanked the company’s scores, he said.

“The issue here isn’t Harris and Motorola,” said J.C. Planas, an attorney representing Motorola’s interests. “The issue here is that this is just the latest example of a selection committee being picked to have a specific outcome.”

But in response to Book, Miami procurement director Annie Perez said the committee was specifically selected on the basis of knowledge and to avoid bias. This month, Miami City Manager Daniel Alfonso recommended that commissioners vote to contract with Harris, a decision likely pending in May. Book wrote in an email that Motorola “will likely argue our case in front of the Commission so they can understand exactly how the process was tanked by outsiders from the City.”

Meanwhile, the fight in Miami could be a precursor for what lays in store for Miami Beach, where City Manager Jimmy Morales is currently weighing which company to recommend for the city’s own system overhaul.

The Beach, which is responsible for safeguarding about 100,000 residents and scores of tourists, is hoping to replace its Motorola SmartNet II public safety radio system. The current network, according to the solicitation issued by the city, was erected in 2003.

“Increased building height and density has created pockets within the City where radio coverage is lacking. This lack of coverage inhibits daily operations and emergency responses, especially during holidays and special events that attract large numbers of visitors,” the solicitation states. “Particular areas of concern are within Mid-beach and the southern locations of the City.”

Dan Oates, Miami Beach’s police chief, said the situation is urgent.

“Our radio system is near end of life. Soon, our hardware and software will no longer be supported, and replacement parts will no longer be available. Our experts advise that we simply must replace the system now,” he wrote in an email. “This is vital for the safety of our First Responders, our residents and our millions of visitors.”

Miami Herald staff writer Joey Flechas contributed to this report.