AUGUSTA, Maine — A state appeals panel for the second time this year has reversed a Maine Public Utilities Commission decision to award FairPoint Communications a $32 million contract to replace the state’s emergency 911 system with an upgraded, Internet-based system for emergency calls.
The specially appointed appeals panel overturned the award following five days of hearings this fall where attorneys for Intrado and Oxford Networks — two communications companies that also submitted bids for the so-called NextGen 911 contract — accused the PUC of violating the law and the terms of its own request for bids when the agency chose FairPoint.
In a 12-page decision issued last week, the three-member appeals panel didn’t accept all the arguments made by Intrado and Oxford Networks, but the panel concluded that the PUC team that scored the contract bids failed to consider a key requirement in the agency’s request for proposals: the ability for each bidder to meet the state’s desired timeline for the project.
The company that ultimately secures the NextGen 911 contract will be charged with upgrading the state’s emergency 911 system to an Internet-based system that allows dispatchers to accept and pinpoint the location of emergency notifications that come by phone, text message, notification services such as OnStar, and other devices.
The state’s current 911 system can accept only phone calls. The state contract for that system, which is held by FairPoint, expires in October 2013.
It’s unclear what happens next as the state looks to upgrade its emergency 911 system, though the decision can be appealed in court.
“We’re trying to sort out what the best way to move forward is, and we hope to know that within a week,” said Paulina Collins, a PUC attorney and the commission’s legislative liaison.
A spokeswoman for FairPoint said the company is still reviewing the appeals panel decision and is considering its next move.
The PUC originally sought to have the NextGen 911 system in place by August 2013 when it initially chose FairPoint for the contract in January. That timeline became unrealistic, however, when Intrado and Oxford Networks appealed the PUC’s initial award to FairPoint and a different appeals panel invalidated that award, concluding there were irregularities in the scoring process and violations of Maine bidding law.
After the first appeals panel threw out the initial PUC award to FairPoint, the commission decided against issuing a new request for bids. Instead, the PUC convened a new review team and rescored the existing nine proposals from the first round.
FairPoint bid $32.4 million for the project while Intrado bid $27.8 million and Oxford bid $24.9 million.
During the appeal hearings this fall, attorneys for Colorado-based Intrado and Lewiston-based Oxford Networks argued that the PUC was wrong to simply rescore existing proposals. Some of the information in the proposals could have changed and become invalid over time, they said.
The second appeals panel rejected that argument, but decided that the PUC review team should have considered the proposed timelines each bidder submitted even though the original August 2013 deadline was unrealistic.
“After recognizing that none of the bidders could meet the August 2013 migration deadline, the Team could have reviewed the proposals with the understanding that the August 2013 deadline would change and that the timelines in the proposals would be shifted accordingly,” the appeals panel wrote.
Intrado’s senior vice president for regulatory and government affairs, Craig Donaldson, praised the appeals panel for its decision.
“We are hopeful that the MPUC will consider a fresh start by reaching out to the public safety community for their input in designing Maine’s Next Generation 911 system and introducing new life-saving services that are right for Maine,” Donaldson said in a statement.
Mike Tompkins, Oxford’s executive vice president for operations, said he was also pleased with the appeals panel decision.
“It is important to us that the review process is thorough, fair and consistent and we are confident that everyone’s efforts in this process will result in achieving those goals,” he said.