DHS requests bids for second try at virtual fence

The winning contractor could net nearly $500 million, according to market research expert.

This story has been updated to provide a comment from a Deltek market research firm executive.

The Homeland Security Department has issued a much anticipated solicitation for sensor-studded towers, preferably military-grade, to replace a $1 billion virtual fence that faltered in the Arizona desert more than a year ago.

In the final work order, however, DHS Customs and Border Protection officials backpedaled on a promise to abandon the project if they could not find proven technology.

Whereas a February draft solicitation stated that "CBP will cancel the solicitation rather than procure an ineffective or high-risk offering," the request for proposals noted, "CBP may cancel the solicitation rather than procure an ineffective or high-risk offering."

Otherwise, the RFP hews closely to February's plan, which was a scaled-back version of several preliminary solicitations dating back to January 2011. That month, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano killed the Secure Border Initiative network, or SBInet, amid congressional ire that the networked fence in the Southwest was over budget, behind schedule and not working. The new eight and a half year endeavor aims to start small, first stationing a single tower in Nogales and then adding up to five more towers in Sonoita, Douglas, Casa Grande, Ajo and Wellton.

The final document, like February's draft, emphasizes -- in all caps -- that DHS does not want technology that requires new construction or tweaks: "First and foremost, CBP is NOT interested in any kind of a system development."

Although the department may not cancel the project if it can't find a vendor with existing technology from military or industrial production lines, CBP officials now say they will cancel the project if the vendor does not deliver.

"Offerors who fail to meet the performance levels they themselves propose should not expect tolerance from the government. All offerors are on notice that the government will be ready, willing and able to terminate for default any successful offeror who fails to meet the performance characteristics asserted and presented in the offeror's proposal," stated the final RFP, which was released on Friday.

According to the solicitation, the winning contractor must offer the best trade-off between cost and performance. There are, however, a handful of mandatory performance attributes. The baseline requirements include the tower's ability to detect an average-size adult as far away as five miles, even if 95 percent of the individual is blocked from view for three seconds. And the unit must withstand wind speeds of up to 10 miles per hour and 15 mile-per-hour gusts.

"Offerors who cannot meet some lower priority parameters, but otherwise offer good performance and high confidence at an attractive price, should expect to compete favorably in this procurement," the RFP stated. "Offerors who offer higher performance at a higher price should also expect to compete favorably if the increased performance is worth the marginal increase in price."

The first tower must be installed within a year after the deal is signed.

CBP officials said future contracts may ask for novel engineering and, perhaps, towers that are networked -- but not this one. Critics of SBInet had said the government stumbled partly by layering on too many bells and whistles, like interconnected towers and ground radars. "For now, the intent is to avoid 'overshooting' mission needs at all costs by delivering low-risk systems that can give immediate support to the overall border security mission," officials said in the final paper.

The new system would automatically flag any humans traveling on foot, on animals or moving around on vehicles, according to the solicitation. Incursions would be reported, in near real time, to CBP personnel at remote workstations. And video would be transmitted in near real-time so that personnel can dispatch response teams.

Maps showing multiple, simultaneous incidents also would be available through the system. All the data and imagery would have to sustain connectivity in adverse environmental conditions, such as secluded locations where power and communications are limited; and in terrain ranging from open surfaces to mountains or foliage.

The work order attempts to aid applicants with a play-by-play of a real-world scenario that uses the envisioned system. It chronicles a takedown in which Border Patrol agents stop a suspicious vehicle with a tire-deflation device, prompting the occupants to bolt into the desert. "The workstation operator notifies agents of one fleeing suspect who has stopped running and has found cover in the brush. The workstation operator uses the system's motion detection capability option to locate the hiding [individual's] subtle movements within the video scene," the narrative noted. The agents use night vision goggles to find the bush where the suspect is hiding and capture him.

The storyline continues, "The second suspect has continued to run through the desert and agents are no longer able to track the shoe prints through the hard caliche surface. The workstation operator directs the system to the second [suspect's icon] marked red on the geospatial screen . . . The agents utilize their [goggles] and the workstation operator illuminates the suspect hiding in a nearby bush, which guides field agents toward the suspect who is apprehended shortly thereafter." The next day, government officials retrieve video evidence saved in the system to prosecute the two individuals, according to the example.

The chosen contractor would net between $390 million and $465 million, including $90 million for the base contract and between $60 million and $75 million for each additional tower, Ray Bjorklund, chief knowledge officer at market research firm Deltek, estimated on Monday.

CBP officials last week rereleased a redacted solicitation for border surveillance video cameras, after accidentally disclosing a vendor's potential trade secrets in the initial solicitation. Officials did not say whose proprietary information may have been leaked. Boeing Co. held the contract for SBInet and currently manages the northern border's video surveillance system.