Posted by: bkivey | 29 June 2010

A nOWIN Situation

Five years ago the Oregon Legislature approved a project to build a new state-wide radio system called OWIN (Oregon Wireless Interoperability Network) to allow first-responders and other emergency personnel to communicate state-wide on the same network. The project was approved in response to a FCC directive that  mandates new frequency allocations for emergency services and was budgeted for a whopping $485 million to construct 300 microwave towers and purchase associated equipment. One would hope that figure included ancillary items like training, documentation, associated facilities, etc. but as information has come to light such hopes may be in vain.

It turns out that five years and $22 million later all the taxpayers of Oregon have to show for the grand design is some equipment purchased for a few participating police departments and site preparation for six (6!) towers. This is not heartening progress for a project that’s supposed to be finished by 2013. As the state budget becomes more constricted lawmakers are increasingly questioning the management of the project and project managers are trying to put a good face on what is looking like a badly managed endeavor.

It was recently reported that an outside consultant found that the project was operating without cost controls or a comprehensive schedule. I had to take a moment to treat the scuff marks on my jaw when I read that. In my experience in project management, from the simple to the complex, I know that you ALWAYS use cost controls and schedules. The sophistication of the tools will vary with the complexity of the project, but the controls are part and parcel of the work. Without measurement there can be no accountability. The cynical might say that is exactly what the project bureaucracy intended, but let us be charitable. Of course, the alternative is that the project managers are incompetent. Either way, it doesn’t speak well for them.

While various aspects of the project are put out to bid to private entities, overall management falls under the auspices of the state, originally under the Oregon State Police, now the Oregon Department of Transportation. Leaving aside the question of why one would put the management of such a massive construction project in the hands of a law enforcement agency, I have to wonder if letting the general contract to a private company was ever seriously considered. I’m guessing the answer is: no. Oregon, like a lot of other states, has a lot of state employees to keep busy, and when this much money is involved there’s going to be some serious turf-building efforts and project efficiency be damned.

This is one of those projects that seems to fall in the ‘nice to have’ rather than the ‘need to have’ category. It’s rather easy to imagine the sort of conversations that took place in Salem when the Fed’s released their mandate: our equipment is old and outdated, this is a great opportunity to put in a new system for the future, it will create a lot of jobs, it will bring money to poor rural areas, etc., etc. All of which is true, but doesn’t really answer the primary question, a question that is studiously avoided even by public officials critical of the project: why, exactly, do we need to spend half-a-billion dollars on a radio system?

Let us look at the justification for the project from the official OWIN site:

Why Oregon needs OWIN
Our vital public safety communications systems are based on 1950’s technology and 80 percent of the infrastructure must be replaced. The current system puts first-responders at risk and is a real liability for Oregon. Anyone with a cell phone can take and send photos. Many of our police officers cannot. It is a digital world and Oregon is still counting on an analog system for emergencies.

 Because I am not an expert on public communications systems, I’ll have to take the first sentence at face value. The second sentence is an opinion and so is more problematic, especially as it is presented without supporting factual evidence. The rest of the statement borders on the fatuous. If police officers need a remote photo capability, why not get them cell phones? Oh wait, they already have them. Which brings us to another point: why can’t emergency responders use cell phones to communicate with each other? Even the most basic phones can store dozens if not hundreds of numbers, and any disaster that takes out a cell tower is very probably going to take down a microwave tower. My understanding is that in the event of a large-scale emergency private cell phone users are blocked precisely so the bandwidth will be available for emergency responders.

It may well be that microwave communications are more robust than cell communications but in all honesty Oregon is a remarkably disaster-free zone. Our volcanoes are all dead or dormant and the only real natural disaster we have to worry about is a Cascadia Subduction Event (aka a Really Big Earthquake). There are civil scenarios that might require interagency cooperation but the majority of the population lives along the two Interstate corridors and the state already has communications facilities along them. If this were a Gulf or Midwest or Atlantic state, I could see the rational for this type of system, but here, not so much.

The OWIN site has a case study taken from Police Chief magazine which purports to show the advantages of interoperability but the example doesn’t really strengthen the case. In the first place, the case takes place in Connecticut. I know that when giving a presentation it’s a good idea to use examples specific to your audience. I understand that the example is used to show a general situation but if you’re forcing Oregon citizens to spend $485 million then I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a few local examples of why the project is needed. The article goes on to say that dispatchers in various agencies must be briefed by phone unless “. . . they are fortunate enough to have scanners.” I checked. You can buy a pretty good police scanner for under $500 retail. This doesn’t seem to really be a good example of a problem.

Rather than question the premise of the project, everyone connected to it, be they bureaucrat or lawmaker, seems to have mission fever, as if this is something that can’t be stopped, and we just need to figure out how to get it done, whether or not the most basic competencies are in place. It’s really a matter of Too Much: too much money, too much power, too many constituents to brag to, too many favors to hand out. State Rep. Tim Freeman is quoted as saying:

“It’s frustrating spending so many millions and not knowing what the endpoint is or how much it will really cost.”

Rep. Freeman, if you think spending the money is frustrating, how do you think we feel about paying it?

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