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The Capitolist: Hurricane Michael Sends Up Red Flags for the Future of Emergency Responder Communications in Florida

Tuesday, November 20, 2018


Hurricane Michael battered Florida’s panhandle nearly a month ago, causing destruction the Gulf Coast has rarely seen. Besides the harm to homes and businesses, the damage to Florida’s civilian communications infrastructure was catastrophic. Cellular service was knocked out as towers and antennas were destroyed, and electric utilities faced widespread outages as power lines and transformers were damaged by downed trees and flying debris.

Unlike power and cellular services, the communication networks used by emergency responders, including police, fire and utilities crews, were a different story—a mixed bag, depending on how the network was designed and supported. Florida’s Statewide Law Enforcement Radio System (SLERS), currently contracted to Harris Corporation, was largely operational during the worst of Hurricane Michael and was 100 percent operational within 96 hours after the storm hit. 

Harris’ SLERS crews had planned well, using best practices learned from years of extreme weather events. Pre-staged tower teams and network technicians were on-site and rapidly making repairs after the winds subsided. While several of the network’s antennas were misaligned by the hurricane force winds, the network was smartly designed with a “coverage density” approach that would provide coverage in critical areas, even remaining operational despite power and signal disruptions.

Unfortunately, several counties not on the SLERS network went completely offline when their networks failed leaving those fire, law enforcement and emergency responders without communications. Thankfully, some of those counties were brought onto the SLERS network, enabling first responders to immediately have communications services critically needed to help do their jobs. Harris handed out more than 550 pre-programmed radios to emergency responders in those non-SLERS counties to help restore communications.

Despite Harris’ laudable efforts that have been praised by Florida officials across the State, including Florida’s Department of Managed Services (DMS), Motorola will soon be running the SLERS statewide network. In March, after a highly-controversial bidding process, DMS awarded Motorola a $600 million contract to build a duplicative SLERS system. Motorola’s plan for their new network includes reducing the number of towers and relying on cellular services to back up the network – the same back up system that failed during Hurricane Michael.

Now that we’ve all had a glimpse into the future, here are questions for the Florida State Legislature: why spend $600 million in taxpayer dollars on an expensive duplicative system, requiring brand new infrastructure, when an upgrade and refresh of the current SLERS system that’s worked so well for the last two decades would cost a fraction of that?  Why is DMS now rushing to sign a new multiyear contract with Motorola before the new administration takes over in January?

All sides agree this new contract will likely need legislative approval, so look for this issue to rise again when Legislature committee weeks begin.

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