Safety concerns raised about emergency radio system under Knox County consideration

KNOXVILLE (WATE) - Knoxville and Knox County leaders could pick the next radio system to be used by police, firefighters, EMS crews next week. But after months of looking into the bid process, WATE 6 On Your Side found safety concerns raised in other communities about the systems provided by Harris Corporation, the winning bidder in Knox County.

A consultant was hired to evaluate the choices, and according to its report that will be presented to the Knox County E-911 board Monday, it also recommended Harris, pointing to cost and how it works with other equipment.

Web Extra: Read the full report [PDF]

However, members of the E-911 board have expressed concerns about Harris, which were found several months ago after a request for the emails of the board members. The records pointed to problems with the radio company's performance in other markets, so we started looking into the points made in the emails and found the complaints span across the country.

Previous story: Revelations from Knox County E-911 Board emails include possible Sunshine violations, accusations against Rural/Metro

According to the Associated Press, Pennsylvania invested $400 million into a statewide radio system for which Harris provided the technology. The Pennsylvania State Police Department spent $11.5 million for a back-up system after trooper complaints about "dead spots," which the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association President said were "a fundamental safety issue."

In West Palm Beach, Florida, there were so many performance complaints about the Harris radios the Inspector General did an audit and found that 69 percent of the officers experienced "problems that could impact public safety." They complained of "dead spots, poor audio quality, and dropped calls."

On Friday, Harris representatives told WATE 6 On Your Side the system in West Palm Beach is a completely different technology than what is being proposed to Knox County, and that Harris worked closely with users to address issues.

In Nevada, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, which spent $42 million on its system, is in the middle of a lawsuit with Harris. According to The Las Vegas Sun, officials said radios "went dead during at least two officer-involved shootings, leaving officers alone to confront suspects."

Just a couple of years into its Harris contract, LVMPD switched to a $26 million contract with Motorola, so we called them to see why they made the switch so soon. Officer Danny Cordero told us it was because there were "officer safety concerns and concerns with the reliability of that system."

In light of these safety concerns in other communities, Harris representatives told WATE 6 On Your Side, "Systems of this complexity - whether deployed by Harris or our competitors - can present challenges in deployment. Harris works with our customers very closely to solve any issues that may arise."

Shortly after WATE 6 On Your Side called Harris representatives to talk about these concerns, a massive binder was delivered to the station filled with more than 100 articles about performance and contract problems in markets that use Motorola, a company also trying to get the Knox County contract.

Victoria B. Dillon, Communications Director at Harris Corporation sent this statement:

Harris has more than 80 years experience designing and deploying public safety communication systems that meet the highest performance requirements, and has built more than 100 systems using standard P25 technology. Our customers include the largest public safety communication system in North America, as well as one of the most active systems in the United States that processes more than 5,000,000 transmissions each month. We are ready and fully committed to delivering a state-of-the-art system to Knox County to support first responder requirements.

Representatives also pointed to a huge installation of a Harris radio system in Miami-Dade County, Florida, adding that the county has experienced a high level of satisfaction, handling millions of calls each month.

Since this is the second time Harris has come out on top of the bid process, we asked Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, a 911 board member, if the past safety concerns will affect his vote.

"We've done what's been asked of us, it's come back with the same results and so I'm ready to go forward," said Mayor Burchett. He said he'd researched their performance himself, but is confident in the county's selection process. "The taxpayers - I mean how many more studies do we need to do to find out that, in fact, Hugh Holt and our purchasing people followed the rules?"

Mayor Burchett said he is planning on voting for the Harris bid to be accepted. That vote could happen as early as Monday at the E-911 board meeting.


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