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At the eastern end of the San Francisco Bay Area, Sheriff Warren Rupf of Contra Costa County and cigar-chomping Sheriff Charlie Plummer of neighboring Alameda County were political powerhouses seemingly locked in an endless duel of one-upmanship.
When Rupf set up a marine patrol, Plummer started buying boats. They echoed each other with helicopters, SWAT teams, and on it went
But in 2005, amid a federal push to avoid another communications nightmare like the one blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001, deaths of 125 New York firefighters at the collapsed World Trade Center, Rupf and Plummer joined forces. They set their sights on a new digital two Way Radio system so that all of their first responders could talk to each other.
There was, however, a catch.
A notice circulated by Alameda County to gauge vendors' interest in the project said that the first $5.7 million phase must include a master controller made by Motorola Inc., and the equipment must connect with the county's aged, proprietary Motorola SmartNet II system.
In other words, "it was already a done deal. Nobody else could make their equipment compatible with soon-to-be-obsolete Motorola equipment" nobody except Motorola, said Steve Overacker, who was Contra Costa County's telecommunications manager at the time.
Any appearance that there would be a fair, competitive bidding process "was a ruse," he said in a phone interview.
Chalk up another contract win for the Schaumburg, Ill.-based Goliath of the public safety communications industry, a company that for decades has ruled a market financed entirely by taxpayers and now totaling billions of dollars a year. For Motorola Solutions Inc., as it has been known since 2011, the value of this California contract would snowball toward $100 million.
Such outcomes have come to be expected for the company that has long led the way in two-way radio technology, even as the nation went on a post-9/11 spending binge on emergency communication. However, a seven-month McClatchy investigation found that, in one region after another, city, county and state officials also have favored Motorola, helping the firm secure an estimated 80 percent of all the emergency telecommunications business in America.
From the nation's capital to the Pacific Coast, government officials have handed the company noncompetitive contracts, used modifications of years-old contracts to acquire new systems or crafted bid specifications to Motorola's advantage. These officials, perhaps without recognizing their collective role, have helped stunt the very competition that's needed to hold down prices and assure the most efficient use of government dollars.
The company's contract wins have been clouded by irregularities or allegations of government favoritism in Chicago, Dallas, the San Francisco Bay Area and on statewide systems in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas and Washington, to name a few. Losing bidders often have been left chafing with the belief that they weren't playing on a level field.
In a weakly policed but humongous patchwork of as many as 20,000 city, county, state and federal two-way radio networks, governments have paid as much as $7,500 apiece for Motorola models, when some competitors offered products meeting the same specifications for a fraction of its prices. In Europe, albeit with a lower-power network that requires more costly towers and infrastructure, police radios serving the same functions sell for $500 to $700.
"While our public safety people do an extraordinary job in protecting the public, I am not impressed with the choices they've made relative to technology," said veteran Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo of California, who represents part of Silicon Valley and has for years monitored Motorola's dominance with chagrin.
In a phone interview, she called radio prices of $5,000 and above "ludicrous."
Motorola Solutions declined to make its chief executive, Gregory Brown, available for an interview or to respond to detailed questions submitted by McClatchy.
Instead, Motorola issued a statement saying that it has developed "state-of-the-art technology to support the challenging and demanding missions of public safety" for more than 80 years.
"Customers choose Motorola because we have remained committed to serving these dedicated professionals by closely listening to them and responding with innovative solutions that meet their needs," it said.
Ever since the Sept. 11 commission recommended in 2004 that the nation's public safety community adopt measures to improve "interoperability" a buzzword meaning that all radios must interact, no matter their manufacturer the nation has spent tens of billions of dollars toward that end.
Even after uniform design standards for two-way radios took hold in 2005, Motorola found ways to elbow rivals out of some markets by peddling proprietary extras that don't interact with non-Motorola radios, such as special encryption software sold for a few dollars per radio in states including Colorado, Louisiana and Kansas.
Many cities and counties have awarded Motorola sole-source contracts by using so-called "cooperative contracts," in which they piggyback on deals that Motorola won competitively elsewhere.
Auditors who track the use of grants from the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies have given little scrutiny to the behavior of state and local officials who tilt procurements toward Motorola, including those who ignore requirements that its radios fully interact with other brands.
Motorola has cultivated cozy relationships with police and fire chiefs, its biggest customers, donating more than $25 million to public safety-related foundations over the last six years and bankrolling a key public safety coalition to which police and fire chiefs belong.
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