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Snafus snarl 9-1-1 system

Agencies, cities aren't happy with a new emergency call process
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Fairview Police Sergeant Bernie Meyer has found difficulties with the replacement 9-1-1 system on the computer inside his police cruiser.

A chorus of criticism is growing louder because of glitches in a replacement 9-1-1 dispatch system that provides critical information to police, fire and medical responders throughout Multnomah County.

Portland Police Association President Daryl Turner says the new $14.5 million system operated by the Portland Bureau of Emergency Communications, which was activated April 17, 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 our perspective, the new system is not as user-friendly (as the old system),' Forquer says.

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, according to Forquer. But there have been problems pulling up building diagrams that were available on the previous system, he says.

The complaints echo criticism from Fairview Police Chief Ken Johnson, as the Tribune reported on Sunday. Johnson, who leads the long-established BOEC User Board, says the new system has crashed repeatedly during the past month. He also says 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 touchscreen 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 also 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 User Board voted against paying the higher costs in February, setting up a potential financial crisis before the system was even activated.

Fritz defends new system

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

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

Two days after the Portland Tribune posted its story, Fritz defended the replacement system on her City Hall website, saying, 'I realize some people find it hard to believe government can do anything right.To try to turn this success into a failure is simply wrong, and political posturing at its worst.This is one complex City of Portland computer project that was planned and implemented as close to perfectly as is humanly possible.'

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 nonemergency calls a year. It prioritizes the calls, sending dispatch notices and updates to numerous first responders in the county.

Law enforcement agencies served by BOEC are the Portland, Gresham, Fairview and Troutdale police departments, as well as the Multnomah County sheriff's office, the county's parole and probation office and the Port of Portland Police Department.

The system also serves fire and rescue departments in Portland, Gresham, Corbett, Sauvie Island and the Port of Portland. Multnomah County Emergency Medical Services is responsible for ambulance services that use the system.

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

The BOEC system is funded by its users, with the fees based on each jurisdiction's population. Portland 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 User 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, the Fairview chief, 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.

Churchill says he retired during a personnel dispute with Turley unrelated to the replacement system. Turley would not discuss the situation, calling it a personnel matter.

Citizen sees big flaws

An outsider who has a front-row seat on the controversy is T.J. Browning, a longtime citizen activist who previously served on the Portland Independent Police Review Board and the Portland Police Bureau Budget Advisory Committee. Late last year, Fritz asked Browning to consider serving on the BOEC Budget Advisory Committee. Turley then invited her to a December meeting that turned out instead to be the BOEC User Group's board, which also had a vacant citizen representative position.

When Browning arrived at the meeting, 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 decided to continue serving on the board. She was there in January 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 maintenance fee was in the contract with Versaterm that users received in 2008. She says the BTS charge was a last-minute surprise to her, too.

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 supports the users in the disputes. She is shocked they 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.