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Agencies try to plug emergency dispatch holes

City bureau whittles problems, but users not happy with results
by: Christopher Onstott Jacqueline Carson watches a panel of computer monitors at the Bureau of Emergency Communications handling fire, police and ambulance dispatch as well as 9-1-1 calls.

A month after the city's replacement 9-1-1 dispatch system was activated, a glitch threatened the life of a woman in Troutdale.

Around 5 p.m. on May 19, the Bureau of Emergency Communications received a call about a woman suffering a medical emergency. A dispatcher notified the Gresham Fire Department, which covers the nearby city. An advance life support engine was dispatched and arrived a short time later. Finding the woman in extreme distress, the crew called the emergency communications center and requested a second advance life support engine.

But nothing happened. The crew called back about 12 minutes later and again requested the second engine. It finally arrived about 20 minutes after the first call. Fortunately, the first crew had stabilized the woman's condition. She made it to an area hospital, where she was treated and released a few days later.

According to Gresham Deputy Fire Chief Jim Klum, an internal BOEC review revealed the first request was never processed.

'The system erased it,' he says.

After reporting the problem to BOEC, agency officials told him it was fixed. Klum is not convinced, however. He says dispatchers still send the wrong mix of vehicles out on calls occasionally.

Klum is a member of the BOEC User Board, a group representing all of the systems' users in the county. BOEC officials have assured the board the problems with the system are being identified, prioritized and fixed. Their members have been reporting multiple problems with the system since it was first activated on April 17.

The first time the board met after the system was activated was on May 19 - ironically, the day of the Troutdale incident. At that time, it received a 21-page list of 'issues' with the system from BOEC officials. The list included 436 separate complaints received between April 17 and May 13. In one column, 134 were reported as 'fixed,' leaving more than 300 still to be resolved.

Fairview Police Chief Ken Johnson is president of the board. He is skeptical of the progress reported at the May 19 meeting, saying many of the reported fixes are not apparent to those using the system.

'I am not at all happy with the results so far,' Johnson said late last week.

When the board meets again on July 7, Johnson says the lack of apparent progress fixing the system will be high on the agenda.

Problems line up

The Portland Tribune received a copy of the BOEC list through a public records request. It identified a mix of problems affecting both the dispatchers in the BOEC operations center and the mobile computer terminals in police, fire and medical vehicles. Perhaps the most serious was a problem with a map-related error that caused the entire system to crash on three occasions for a total of two hours.

Other problems ranged from authorized personnel not being able to access criminal records to complaints about the new font size being too small to read.

All of the complaints were analyzed by BOEC officials and representatives of the company providing the system, Versaterm. They prioritized them as severe (2), high (74), moderate (230) and low (130).

The report identified five primary causes for the problems, listed by number of complaints received:

• Application Defect (190) - This does not mean the application itself was defective, but there may have been one line of code that needed to be clarified or modified.

• Configuration Issue (103) - To ensure different functions 'line up' correctly, combinations of configurations had to be changed for optimal effectiveness.

• Training (102) - Additional training required, even though all users were trained before the system was activated. According to BOEC, dispatchers received over 24 hours of classroom instruction and then over 40 hours of practice. Police officers and firefighters received both classroom and field training.

• Technology Issue (40) - Some problem with system technology, including its servers, networks and connections.

• System Administration Issue (1) - An administrative decision was required to address a problem.

In addition to the 134 problems reported as being fixed, the report identified 103 others as being the way the system is supposed to work, even if the users do not like it. Eighty others were still being identified, 60 were described as 'to be fixed,' solutions for 15 others were still being discussed and five require Versaterm to do additional work.

Closed meeting

Known as a computer-assisted dispatch system, the 9-1-1 network is operated by the city but serves all law enforcement agencies, fire departments and ambulance companies in Multnomah County, including the Port of Portland's police department.

BOEC first began operating a CAD system in 1983. It had a number of serious problems when it was first activated, but was fixed and reprogrammed over time to meet the specific needs of each jurisdiction. The result was a highly customized system that everyone liked.

Worried about the age and complexity of the system, Portland officials began looking for a replacement in 2005. The initial effort occurred under City Commissioner Randy Leonard, who was in charge of the agency at the time. After Versaterm was selected and the installation of the system began, the bureau was transferred to newly elected Commissioner Amanda Fritz in January 2009.

The replacement system cost $14.5 million. Fritz has defended its operation, saying the problems are to be expected with a new system and will be fixed.

The BOEC User Board was created by a 1983 intergovernmental agreement to represent all jurisdictions in the county that rely on it. Before the May 19 meeting, Fritz obtained an opinion from the city attorney's office that said the board is not required to open its meetings to the public.

According to Deputy City Attorney Ellen Osoinach, the board is exempt from Oregon's open meetings law because the jurisdictions chose to retain their 'legislative authority.' A majority of the board then voted to close the meeting to the press.

The city's opinion and subsequent board vote concerns Portland attorney Duane Bosworth, a recognized expert in open meetings law. He notes that the law also covers appointed bodies that make recommendations. The intergovernmental agreement creating the board authorizes it to make recommendations on policy matters to the BOEC director, who has the authority to set and change the agency's policies.

'There are a lot of appointed advisory committees out there. If the BOEC User Board can close its meetings to the public, so can they under this opinion. It sets a bad precedent,' says Bosworth.

Osoinach did not respond to repeated calls for comment.