Tom Barrett's Open-Sky is a Failure

Barrett Campaign Throws Rocks from a Glass House

police carEarlier this month, Barrett's campaign ran a negative ad criticizing Walker for failing to care for "our most desperate" vulnerable, and needy individuals.  Barrett's ad drew attention to problems at the Mental Health Complex, an issue that already dominates the news.  The irony, however, should not be lost on us.  While Barrett is attacking Walker for neglecting the vulnerable and needy, he has emergent problems of his own with Milwaukee's 911 radio system - a system that the vulnerable and needy heavily rely upon.

This past week, Milwaukee's "Opensky" digital radio system went off-line for 30 minutes.  Opensky is a high-tech, cutting-edge, 14 million dollar wireless communications system purchased by the city of Milwaukee in 2003.

Since its inception, Opensky has been riddled with problems including faulty equipment, radio dead spots, and most recently a complete blackout for 30 minutes. Citizens for Responsible Government, a conservative advocacy group, released reports showing at least 240 incidents where Opensky had failed.   And there have been hundreds of internal complains filed by Milwaukee police officers.  They system is an exorbitant failure.

Opensky's Blackout

Last week, a vendor from Harris Corporation, Opensky's manufacture, accessed Opensky from a remote location.  This tripped Opensky's security causing a complete shutdown for 30 minutes.  Without access to radios, police used their cellphones and squad computers to transmit incident information.

This is not the first time that Opensky jeopardized the lives of police officers.  Last year, two officers could not hear the dispatcher giving them an address where another officer was shot.  In fact, communication dead spots have caused so much concern that Sergeant Willie Murphy earned himself a 20 day suspension for trying to organize a protest until the problems were corrected.  And MPD officer Gary Cole confessed that throwing the radio out the window would have been a better solution than keeping it.

Radio failure is a serious problem.  According to Mark Buetow, vice president of the officer's union, a radio is the most important piece of equipment in their toolbox.  He said that people think that the police take out their guns from their holsters all the time, but in reality they use their radios every hour of the day.  Without radio communication, they cannot issue maydays, cannot call for backup, and cannot inform dispatchers of their location.  It can get awfully dangerous in Milwaukee quickly if the police cannot communicate with each other on the fly.

Gubernatorial Politics Enter the Fray

It stands to reason that seven years of problems with OpenSky is a direct reflection of city management.  So naturally, Tom Barrett will have to answer the question of why he continues to spend millions in cost overruns for a radio system that continues to risk the lives of emergency personnel.

Scott Walker, with his gubernatorial megaphone, did not hesitate to criticize Barrett's performance.  Walker said that if Opensky cannot be guaranteed to run as it was designed, then it should be scrapped.  Barrett shot back immediately accusing Walker of playing politics.  But politics aside, scrapping the program isn't really that radical.

Early last year, the state of New York terminated their 2 billion dollar contract using Opensky because the system had unresolved problems - problems with faulty equipment and areas with no signal.  Does that sound familiar?

New York decided that the safety of their officers had to come first, so they cut their losses and moved on.  In Lancaster Pennsylvania, they used Opensky for more than a decade.  However, they terminated their contract in 2008 because Opensky was unlikely to meet minimum acceptable levels of performance and reliability.  Lancaster County spent more than $13 million on Opensky though the system never progressed beyond the testing phase; they cut their losses as well.

Similarly, Milwaukee has invested $17 million into Opensky and received 7 years of poor performance and minimal reliability.  But unlike Lancaster County and the state of New York, Barrett doesn't want to cut the umbilical cord.  One must ask, what would it take to scrap the system?  Would an officer's death be enough?  Or perhaps a failure to respond to a time-sensitive emergencies like a heart attack or perhaps a stroke?  Let's not wait.

Taking Responsibility

When Reporter Patrick McIlheran asked Mayor Barrett, "Who in the city is accountable for supervising the vendor's ongoing bungles",  Barrett said it was a question for the police chief.  Chief Flynn has publicly accepted responsibility and committed to improving the system.

It's noble of Flynn to fall on Barrett's sword, but Barrett's the one in charge of the city, not Flynn.  When Barrett aired ads criticizing Walker for mismanagement at the Mental Health Complex, Walker could have deflected the blame.  Instead, he responded with a commercial accepting responsibility and pledging to do better.  Barrett, however, has passed the buck. 

When Opensky fails to provide the police or firefighters with timely dispatch information, it delays emergency care to citizens having, quite frankly, a very bad day. In the end, Barrett ought to heed the words of his own ad and start caring for the emergent needs of the vulnerable.

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