Oversight Missing for Oregon’s Emergency Radio Network

A new report to lawmakers says Oregon lacks the necessary oversight on a $414 million project to build a massive emergency radio network.

The report from the Legislature’s budget committee says those building the Oregon Wireless Interoperability Network don’t have the staff and controls in place to adequately manage such a large-scale construction and technology project.

State officials running the project say everything is under control and on schedule.

The budget office report doesn’t dispute that. But it does say that the agency building the network, public safety officials and lawmakers who are supposed to oversee the project aren’t keeping tabs on progress and spending.

On Thursday, the Legislature’s Ways and Means Committee gave project managers until January to make progress in putting the necessary management checks in place.

“This is a huge project,” said one committee member, Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford. “We don’t want another failure on our hands.”

Lawmakers can recall other large high-tech projects, including new computer systems for Driver and Motor Vehicle Services and a state data storage center, that spun out of control and over budget.

Oregon is building the radio network in response to a federal mandate that public safety agencies across the nation use new bandwidths by 2013. State agencies running their own radio systems have complained that their radios are outdated and that existing systems often don’t let agencies talk directly to one another.

The project involves building or updating 265 towers outfitted with radio and microwave relays that will serve public safety officials on a day-to-day basis.

A big selling point of the network is that it would keep running after a major earthquake, storm or other catastrophe that knocks out landlines, cell phones and other radio systems.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski has pushed to put four state agencies on the same radio system: Oregon State Police and the departments of Corrections, Transportation and Forestry. More than 40 local and federal agencies have signed up to join the network and help pay for the project.

So far, the state has spent or committed about $20 million and has started design work on 82 tower sites.

Officials say they have quality-control measures in place throughout the project.

But the Legislature’s budget office report found managers had failed to hire a company to provide oversight, even though project officials promised to do so more than a year ago.

“As a result, it is impossible at this time to provide a report that truly indicates whether the project is on time or on budget,” the report said.

Representatives from four state agencies and several local governments are supposed to be providing oversight through a steering committee.

But the budget report said that’s not happening.

Lindsay Ball, project director, said after the hearing that his agency wants the same thing lawmakers want: an on-time, on-budget project that provides a working emergency network.

“The suggestions they have for us are excellent,” Ball said of the budget committee report.