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New 911 system encounters problems

Fairview chief, Portland officers say flaws jeopardize safety
by: Christopher Onstott Fairview Police Sgt. Bernie Meyer uses the police department's new 9-1-1 system inside his police cruiser.

Controversy is swirling around a new 9-1-1 system that provides critical call information to police, fire and medical responders in East Multnomah County. Users of the system say it has multiple flaws and that its problems are jeopardizing the safety of police officers and citizens.

As first reported on The Outlook and Portland Tribune websites Sunday night, Fairview Police Chief Ken Johnson, who is chairman of the 9-1-1 system's user group, is questioning why the city of Portland went live with the system on April 17 before all the bugs were addressed.

Johnson and other system users also are firm in their opposition to paying more to Portland for maintenance of the system.

Following Johnson's comments over the weekend, criticism of the 9-1-1 system is growing from other quarters.

Portland Police Association President Daryl Turner also says the new $14.5 million system has serious problems that compromise officer and public safety. Among other things, he says dispatch information is now harder for officers to access on the computers in their patrol cars - especially when a single officer is driving to an emergency situation.

'It's only a matter of time before these problems affect the safety of officers in the field if they are not fixed. We plan to meet with management and talk about this,' Turner says.

Portland Firefighter Association President Jim Forquer agrees.

'From out perspective, the new system is not as user-friendly (as the old system),' Forquer says.

According to Forquer, accessing information on the road is not as much of a problem for firefighters, who always travel in crews where one person can operate the computer. But Forquer says there have been problems pulling up building diagrams that were available on the previous system.

Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis is aware of the problems, but hopes Portland's Bureau of Emergency Communications (BOEC) can work them out.

'The system just went live,' says Ron Papsdorf, Gresham's government relations manager. 'It's going to take some time for people to get used to it and work out the solutions.'

But Gresham's wait-and-see attitude contrasts sharply with the views of Johnson, who emphasizes that he is speaking out, not as Fairview's chief, but in his capacity as chairman of the long-established BOEC User Board. He says the new system has crashed repeatedly over past month. He also says the type on the computer screens is smaller than before - presenting a real problem for officers trying to obtain information from their patrol cars. The new system is Windows-based, which requires more touch-screen functions to access some of the information - also a problem while driving to a call.

'Officers are having to pull over to get the information they need,' Johnson says.

Johnson is upset that Portland wants to charge system users around $2 million more a year to operate and maintain the system.

'We can't afford this increase,' Johnson says. The BOEC users board voted against paying the higher costs in February, setting up a potential financial crisis before the system was even activated.

Papsdorf, however, says Bemis is not willing to withhold Gresham's share of the maintenance money.

'We're not going to play chicken with an important response system,' Papsdorf says.

Fritz defends new system

The new system replaced one that was first installed in 1994. Portland Commissioner Amada Fritz, who is charge of BOEC, defends the operation of the replacement system, noting that it cost $1.5 less than originally budgeted.

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

Fritz admits there are some problems with the new system, including the small type size that cannot be increased on computer screens - an option under the previous system.

'There are some legitimate complaints that need to be addressed,' Fritz says.

BOEC Director Lisa Turley says the project management team has received and is processing a few hundred complaints and requests for changes so far. According to Turley, many are the result of operator errors or a lack of training. Fewer than 10 percent will require changes to the system, Turley estimates.

'This has been a very smooth transition so far. Everything is under control and we are fixing what needs to be fixed,' says Turley, who notes that work is already under way to increase the type size on the computer screens.

Fritz also 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.

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 served by BOEC are the Portland Police Bureau, the Gresham Police Department, the Fairview Police Department, the Troutdale Police Department, Multnomah County Parole and Probation and the Port of Portland Police Department. The fire and rescue services that use the systems are: Portland Fire and Rescue, Gresham Fire, Rural Fire Protection District 14 (Corbett), Rural Fire Protection District 30 (Sauvie Island) and the Port of Portland Airport Fire Department. Multnomah County Emergency Medical Services is responsible for ambulance services.

The BOEC system is funded by its users, with the fees based on each jurisdiction's population. Portland currently pays around 80 percent of the cost. The approximate breakdown for the other jurisdictions is Gresham, 14 percent; Troutdale, 2.1 percent; Multnomah County, 1.7 percent; Fairview, 1.3 percent; Wood Village 0.4 percent; and Maywood Park, 0.1 percent.

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, Turley says it grew increasingly difficult to maintain over 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.

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 in 1994. The decision eventually was made to choose an off-the-shelf system made by Versaterm, Inc., a Canadian company.

But Johnson charges that the system did not need to be replaced. He says the old one could have been ungraded for around $500,000 and used for many years to come.

'Portland spent $14 million they didn't have to,' Johnson says.

Johnson bases his claim in part on conversations with Jim Churchill, a BOEC senior systems business analyst who retired last summer. Contacted by the Portland Tribune, Churchill says he believes BOEC could have replaced key components of the hardware that operates the system for half-a-million dollars.

'They could have kept using it for years to come for a lot less money,' Churchill says.

Turley disagrees.

'Replacing the hardware would only have bought a few more years,' Turley says.

Citizen sees big flaws

An outsider who has a front row seat on the controversy is T.J. Browning, a longtime citizen activist who joined the BOEC User Group's board in December.

When Browning arrived, she was plunged into the middle of discussions over the coming replacement dispatch system. Browning says group members were pressing Turley on questions related to its operation and potential maintenance costs.

Browning was present at a January board meeting, when Turley said the city had signed a $489,000-a-year maintenance contract and was planning to spend an additional $1.4 million a year for the city Bureau of Technical Service to help operate the replacement system. Browning says the BOEC user board members were shocked and angry at the news.

'A lot of them felt they'd been lied to. They said they'd been told there wouldn't be an increase in maintenance costs,' Browning says.

Turley says the users should not have been surprised by the maintenance contract. It was included in the original contract signed with Versaterm in 2008 and distributed to all the board members. Turley admits, however, she did not highlight it.

As for the Bureau of Technical Service's payments, Turley says she only learned about the $1.4 million payment late last year herself. Turley says that is what the Bureau of Technical Service told BOEC it would need to help operate the system - a requirement she did not expect.

'I was surprised by that, too,' Turley says.

Browning also attended the February meeting where the board voted not to pay the higher maintenance costs. After that, Johnson and Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton met with Fritz and Turley on April 3 to discuss the issues. Browning attended the meeting in Fritz's office, too, and says Fritz defended the higher maintenance costs as necessary and insisted the users pay them.

After listening to both sides, Browning lines up with the users in the dispute. She is surprised the users are having so much trouble accessing information from the new system, saying the problems should have been identified and resolved before it was activated. And she says they were blindsided by the higher maintenance costs.

'The jurisdictions are getting screwed,' Browning says.

The user group is expected to discuss the issue again at its upcoming monthly meeting, scheduled for May 19 at the BOEC headquarters.

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