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Critics jump on citys new 9-1-1 system

Commissioner Fritz defends $14.5 million replacement as 'good news story'
by: Tribune File Photo A $14.5 million emergency communication system for police and fire agencies in Multnomah County is drawing criticism from some regional users. The system is being defended by City Commissioner Amanda Fritz.

Controversy is swirling around Portland's replacement 9-1-1 dispatch system, which is operated by the city Bureau of Emergency Communications and provides critical call information to police, fire and medical responders throughout Multnomah County.

The $14.5 million system was switched on in early April. The system it replaced was 17 years old. But some users say the new system does not work nearly as well as the one it replaced, creating problems for police officers responding to calls in the field.

'There are significant officer safety issues,' says Fairview Police Chief Ken Johnson, chairman of the BOEC User Board that represents all agencies and organizations that rely on the system.

Among other things, Johnson says system has crashed repeatedly and the computer screen type is smaller than before, making it hard for officers responding to calls to read vital information while driving. He also says address updates are harder to find, confusing back-up officers.

Johnson also says that a few months ago, BOEC unexpectedly increased the annual maintenance cost for the replacement system - a cost that all users are expected to pay - from $500,000 to nearly $2 million a year. According to Johnson, many of the users are facing budget cuts and cannot afford the increase.

Because of this, Johnson says, the board voted in February not to pay the increased maintenance costs, creating a potential financial crisis before the system was even activated.

'We were assured there would not be a significant cost increase, then we were told the cost was going to be much higher. Many of us can't afford it,' Johnson says.

Johnson also believes the old system could have been upgraded and maintained for just $500,000.

'All these problems could have been avoided if BOEC had just stuck with the old system instead of paying $14.5 million for a new one,' Johnson says.

On its last legs

City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who is in charge of BOEC, defends the replacement system. She says the problems with it are expected, minor and being fixed, and notes that it cost $1.5 million less than the original $16 million estimate.

'This is a good news story. The project was finished on time, under budget and it works,' Fritz says.

Fritz admits to some 'miscommunications' about the increased maintenance costs, but says the agencies and organizations now using the replacement system are getting a bargain.

'Portland taxpayers paid for the replacement and the other agencies are getting a new $14.5 million system for just maintenance costs,' Fritz says.

Mayor Sam Adams put Fritz in charge of BOEC after she first took office in January 2009. Although the decision to replace the system had already been made by then, Fritz says she looked into the question of whether the old system could have been upgraded and kept instead. She concluded replacing the old system was the right decision.

'The old system was on its last legs and had to be replaced. Any upgrade would only have been good for a few years, at the most,' Fritz says.

But a citizen representative Fritz recruited for the user board sides with Johnson. T.J. Browning, a longtime budget activist, says the replacement system still needs a lot of work. Browning accuses BOEC of blindsiding the board members with the higher maintenance costs, which many of them cannot afford.

'The jurisdictions are getting screwed,' says Browning, who began serving on the board at the end of last year.

Old system had custom features

Although BOEC is a Portland agency, it began taking 9-1-1 calls for all police agencies in Multnomah County in 1974. It added fire bureaus and medical responders in the following years, eventually installing a Computer Assisted Dispatch system in 1994.

Today, BOEC receives and processes around 950,000 emergency and non-emergency calls a year. It prioritizes the calls, sending dispatch notices and updates to numerous first responders in the county.

The law enforcement agencies are the Portland Police Bureau, the Gresham Police Department, the Fairview Police Department, the Troutdale Police Department, Multnomah County Sheriff's Office, the Multnomah County Parole and Probation, and the Port of Portland Police Department. The fire and rescue services are Portland Fire and Rescue, Gresham Fire and Rescue, Rural Fire Protection District 14 (Corbett), Rural Fire Protection District 30 (Sauvie Island), and the Port of Portland Airport Fire Department. The medical service is American Medical Response.

BOEC also communicates with state, county and city emergency management agencies.

The original CAD system was customized with thousands of programming changes over the years, allowing dispatch information to be tailored for each user.

Despite widespread satisfaction with the system, BOEC Director Lisa Turley says it grew increasingly difficult to maintain during the years.

'Only a few people know how to program it and they are nearing retirement, and technical support is getting harder and harder to find,' Turley says.

At a stalemate

The city began studying repair and replacement options in 2005. According to Turley, the process involved numerous advisory committees, including the BOEC Users Board that was originally created through an Intergovernmental Agreement years ago. The decision was eventually made to choose an off-the-shelf system made by Versaterm Inc., a Canadian company.

According to Johnson, Turley originally said annual maintenance costs would not increase beyond the $500,000 a year the members were paying for the old system. Johnson said he and the other board members were shocked to learn the Portland Bureau of Technical Services would be charging an additional $1.4 million a year for maintenance. Portland pays 80 percent of the cost, Gresham pays 12 percent and the other jurisdictions pay the rest.

Johnson says the news prompted him to interview some current and former BOEC employees involved with the project about other options. Johnson says he was told the old system could have been upgraded and operated for many years to come for a mere $500,000.

'It could have been fixed for half-a-million dollars, not the $14.5 million the city spent on it,' Johnson says.

Both Fritz and Turley disagree, however, saying any upgrade would be nothing more than a temporary patch that would only postpone the inevitable a few years.

'The people who used the system did not know how bad it was behind the scenes,' Turley says.

Upset with the unexpected increase, the user board voted in February against paying the higher charges. Johnson and Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton then met with Fritz to voice the board's concerns. Fritz listened but said the member jurisdictions and organizations were obligated to pay the increase, arguing they were getting a good deal.

Fritz says she has subsequently met with Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen and Gresham Mayor Shane Beamis to discuss the situation. According to Fritz, neither of them threatened to withhold their jurisdiction's payments.

The user board will discuss the issue at its next meeting, scheduled for the third Thursday in May.

'We're at a stalemate,' Johnson says.

Problems being identified

Although the new system was installed at BOEC, the effects were seen on computer screens throughout the county. They include computers operated by the BOEC employees and those installed in police cars, fire vehicles and ambulances.

When the system was turned on in early April, the users noted immediate changes, and not all of them were good. Among other things, the type on the computer screens was smaller than before, making it harder to read. According to Johnson, this is a special problem in police cars with only one officer, who needs to read the information on the screen while driving to a call.

'Officers are having to pull over on the way to calls to read their computers. They didn't have to do that before,' Johnson says.

Unlike the old system, the new system is Windows-based, meaning it uses more touch-screen functions. There are more icons to touch and they are smaller than the previous ones, making it harder to use, at least for those who are not familiar with it.

Johnson says the way information is displayed is not as useful as before, too. For example, as incidents unfold, address changes are posted at the bottom of the dispatch log, not the top. This makes it harder for back-up officers to find the most current address, Johnson says.

'Back-up officers don't know where they're supposed to go. If the action has moved down the street, they'll still respond to the first address,' Johnson says.

Turley admits the system has also crashed several times, as recently as Tuesday, May 3. She says that is not unusual with new systems and that fixes seem to have stabilized it.

Another Portland mess?

Fritz and Turley admit some of these complaints are valid, but insists project staff is identifying and fixing them. For example, Versaterm is providing a software fix that will increase the type size on the computer screens. Work is also under way to see about increasing the size of the touch screen icons.

But Fritz and Turley also believe that some of the complaints are more about getting used to a different computer system than about an inherent shortcoming. They note the same system is being used by other police agencies, including those in Seattle, San Francisco and many cities in Canada, where Versaterm is based.

'There's always a period of adjustment with any new system. We're just a few weeks into the transition,' Turley says.

Johnson disagrees that the solutions will be simple, accusing Portland of botching another critical computer replacement project. He points to the problems with the replacement water and sewer billing system, which cost the city tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue. He also notes the replacement internal payroll system, which a November 2010 audit says was late, incomplete and over budget - costing $47 million instead of the original $14 million estimate.

'This is another Portland mess,' Johnson says.

Browning agrees, saying, 'It's a fiasco.'