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Regions troubled 9-1-1 system has to serve many masters

Other cities don't place same demands on dispatch network
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.

Is a replacement 9-1-1 dispatch system that's now the subject of controversy being asked to do too much?

Known as a computer-assisted dispatch system, the 9-1-1 network is operated by the Portland Bureau of Emergency Communications (BOEC). Since the system was activated on April 17, users have complained that it does not work as well as the old one - and has problems that could potentially compromise public safety.

Such complaints have come primarily from members of police agencies, including Portland Police Association President Daryl Turner and Fairview Police Chief Ken Johnson, who chairs the BOEC User Board that represents all user agencies in Multnomah County.

Portland Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who is in charge of the Bureau of Emergency Communications, has defended the operation of the replacement system, which is made by Versaterm, a Canadian company. Writing on her City Hall blog in response to a previous Tribune article, Fritz argued that the same system is used in other parts of the country, including Seattle and Sacramento.

Versaterm was selected, she wrote, in part 'because it already serves Seattle and Sacramento, creating a West Coast network potential in the event of a major regional disaster such as a catastrophic earthquake.'

Versaterm, she added, 'has an impressive track record and we were confident that the system would function properly when implemented. It does.'

But in fact, the 9-1-1 systems in Seattle and Sacramento do not serve as many agencies as the one in Portland. BOEC receives 9-1-1 calls from all of Multnomah County and sends information to six law enforcement agencies, four fire bureaus and districts and one emergency medical dispatcher.

In contrast, the Seattle area is served by a dozen 9-1-1 dispatch systems that serve different parts of King County. For example, the 9-1-1 system operated by the Seattle Police Department only receives calls from within the city limits. It refers fire and medical calls to a separate dispatch system operated by the Seattle Fire Bureau. Calls outside the city limits are received by one of 11 other dispatch centers, including one operated by the King County Sheriff's Office.

'There are a total of 12 public safety answering points in King County, including six large ones and six small ones,' says Seattle police spokesman Lt. Greg Schmidt.

The situation is similar in the Sacramento area, where the city 9-1-1 center also only receives calls from inside the city limits. Calls outside the city limits are taken by other agencies in Sacramento County, including the sheriff's department.

'There are separate communications centers for the Sheriff's Department, the Sacramento Police Department, and Sacramento City and Sacramento Metro Fire Departments,' says Sacramento Sheriff's Department spokesman Deputy Jason Ramos. 'We are connected, in the sense that we have the capability to transfer a call that comes to us as a medical emergency to the fire department. However, we are all stand-alone dispatch centers,'

It is unclear how many of the problems with the BOEC replacement system are related to the larger number of agencies it serves. Johnson says BOEC so far has received more than 400 suggestions for changes from users of the new system. Fifty-seven have been prioritized for immediate attention. But when the users board met to discuss them in detail last week, the press was excluded.

Original problems

BOEC began operating a system to serve all of Multnomah County in 1983. The user board was created by an intergovernmental agreement that year to represent all jurisdictions in the county that rely on it. They include the Portland, Gresham, Fairview and Troutdale police departments as well as the Multnomah County sheriff. Also included in the user group are local fire departments and Emergency Medical Services, which dispatches ambulances.

Johnson and others say the original system had problems, too. They were resolved by literally thousands of software programming changes that tailored the system to each user. After the original company was taken over by Northrop Grummond, BOEC hired two employees to continue the customizations.

Although the users liked the results, BOEC Director Lisa Turley says the tinkering caused problems as the system aged. Technical support was getting harder and harder to find. And after 30 or so years, only a few people knew how to keep it running, Turley says.

So in 2005 the city began looking for a replacement system. According to Turley, Versaterm offered an off-the-shelf system estimated at around $16 million. A system that could be customized like the old one was a lot more expensive - between $40 million and $60 million. The city decided to go with the system from Versaterm, in part because it was already in use in other cities. The final cost came in at $14.5 million.

But the Versaterm system isn't satisfying everyone. Some law enforcement officers complain the type on their computers in their cars is smaller and harder to read, especially when driving alone to a call. The Windows-based system also has many more touchscreen functions than the previous one - functions that are also hard to perform while driving. This is not as much of a concern for firefighters, who always dispatch at least two people to every call, including one who can focus on the computer.

Meeting isn't open

The BOEC User Board met for the first time since the system was activated on Thursday, May 19. Before the meeting, Fritz obtained an opinion from the Portland city attorney's office that said the board did not have to open its meeting to the public because its work is only advisory. In a May 16 e-mail, Fritz told Johnson that he could invite anyone to the meeting, but urged caution.

'As chair of the user board, you are able to invite anyone to sit in on user board meetings to observe, including journalists,' Fritz wrote. 'I don't know whether other members of the user board would feel comfortable discussing concerns in front of the media. I urge you to consider whether there may be sensitive issues with privacy or security concerns for frontline providers or callers that come up during the meetings.'

When the board met, a majority voted to exclude the press from the meeting.

'We had a good debate about it, and the majority was concerned about tactical, police and proprietary issues,' Johnson said after the meeting.

According to Johnson, the board spent the meeting focusing on fixing the serious safety problems with the system. BOEC staff said they were working to resolve the most pressing 57 issues by this week, Johnson said.

The board also voted to postpone discussion of two other issues, Johnson said. One is nearly $2 million in additional operation and maintenance costs for the new system. The board only learned about the charges late last year and voted in February not to pay them.

The other issue is whether longtime city budget activist T.J. Browning is serving on the board. She attended the December meeting at the request of Turley, and Johnson says the board appointed her as citizen representative at that time. But after Browning began talking to the Portland Tribune about the problems with the system, Fritz insisted only the City Council could appoint her to the board.

Johnson says the board will meet again in June to review the progress on the system and discuss the financing and appointment issues.

'The first priority is addressing the safety issues,' he said.