Our Opinion

If public safety is the No. 1 responsibility of a municipality, then Portland officials should be jumping more swiftly to fix a flawed 9-1-1 emergency dispatch system that was activated April 17.

The new system - which provides vital information to police officers, firefighters and medical technicians throughout Multnomah County - isn't working to the satisfaction of the rank-and-file people who depend upon it to save lives and protect property. And when police officers, firefighters and medical personnel are impeded in their jobs, that ought to be troubling for everyone.

Portland officials are downplaying the complaints about the $14.5 million dispatch system, saying that glitches are to be expected anytime new hardware and software are deployed. We understand that transitions are difficult - but the problems being experienced in the field go well beyond the normal, or the acceptable.

Before and after reporting this story online on Sunday, we have heard from police officers, firefighters, union heads and a police chief who say the computer problems are hindering their work and, in some cases, even compromising public safety. Officers say they have trouble accessing information while speeding to a crime scene. They believe that backup officers are getting wrong information about addresses - thereby endangering officers' lives.

Even by their own count, officials at the Portland Bureau of Emergency Communications say they have received 'hundreds' of complaints about how the system functions.

Losing vital information

The ongoing expense of this new system is also an issue. System users - which, besides the city of Portland, include Fairview, Troutdale, Gresham and the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office - said they were surprised by the news early this year that they will have to share an additional $2 million in maintenance costs.

Some users of the system even argue that Portland should revert to the old 9-1-1 dispatch system and spend an estimated $500,000 to extend its life.

It's premature to talk about scrapping a $14.5 million investment, but concerns and criticisms being offered by police, fire and emergency personnel must be taken seriously and dealt with immediately. The important thing to remember about these complaints is that they come from the people whose job it is to protect citizens.

They aren't just grousing about some minor computer glitch - they are talking about the need to swiftly transmit accurate information that may be essential in life-or-death situations.

Listen and act quickly

It's been almost a month since the new 9-1-1 dispatch system was brought online. If the issues were fleeting, more of them would have been resolved by now. Instead, frustration has grown to the point that normally reticent rank-and-file law enforcement officers felt compelled to come forward.

Now that the problems have become public, we also believe the meetings of the 9-1-1 system's users group should be opened to the public. Multnomah County residents have a right to learn more about how the system's problems are being addressed. The users group, made up of representatives of the jurisdictions served by the dispatch system, meets in private on Thursday, May 19. That meeting should be moved to a location where the public and media can observe it.

The task before Portland's Bureau of Emergency Communications, which is overseen by Commissioner Amanda Fritz, isn't to defend the purchase of this system. Rather, Fritz and the administrators who report to her must listen intently to what the 9-1-1 system's users are telling them. Then, they must offer both immediate fixes that help in the short term and longer-term answers that will give police officers, firefighters and medical technicians confidence that the new technology can be a valuable tool, not a hindrance, for the important work they do.

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