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Problem with 9-1-1 system wont just go away

Portland Commissioner Randy Leonard describes the city's police agency as guilty of an enduring 'culture of complaint.' That comment came on the heels of a letter from the Portland police union demanding repairs to what cops say are serious and dangerous problems within the city's new 9-1-1 dispatch system.

Leonard's comment seems to shrug off concerns of law enforcement as something akin to the 'Chicken Little syndrome' - you know, accusing the police of screaming 'the sky is falling, the sky is falling.'

By extension, we wonder if Commissioner Leonard is ready to say the 'culture of complaint' extends to police, fire and ambulance agencies from one end of Multnomah County to the other.

Not just a Portland problem

The regional 9-1-1 network is operated by the Portland Bureau of Emergency Communication, but it serves all law-enforcement agencies, fire departments and ambulance companies in Multnomah County, including emergency services in Gresham, Troutdale and Fairview.

The problem with Leonard's dismissive reaction to the letter is that it was vetted by far more than just the Portland police officers. Fairview Police Chief Ken Johnson, who is chairman of the 9-1-1 system's user group, said he sat through several meetings where the letter was reviewed.

While Portland Police Association President Daryl Turner may have sent the letter, it actually had full backing from a cross-section of countywide emergency responders.

Given that level of concern, we hardly feel Leonard's response was appropriate, and certainly don't believe Leonard is showing the level of concern this issue warrants.

In East County, Chief Johnson isn't alone in his concerns with the new 9-1-1 system. Gresham Deputy Fire Chief Jim Klum says firefighters and emergency medical crews depend on the 9-1-1 system to allow for the quickest response possible. Klum says that's still a big issue under the new system.

The old system had its problems. And the new system - at a value of $15 million - was supposed to fix them. But from dropped communication, to faulty GPS functions, to confusing officer call-out numbers with home addresses, the system still has too many bugs to be considered a step forward.

Where's the problem lie?

Think of it like this: If you operate Microsoft's Windows 7 on your home computer and it doesn't function the way you want it to, your only recourse would be to ask Microsoft to revise the software. Not gonna happen.

OK, so Versaterm, a Canadian company, programmed the replacement 9-1-1 system. How likely is it that Versaterm is going to rewrite its programming? Not likely.

That leads people like Chief Johnson to conclude that Multnomah County is stuck with a faulty 9-1-1 system that was rushed into operation without first proving itself through adequate testing.

Where from here?

While there's no simple fix to the new system, and because there is doubt about the value of reactivating the old system, the here-and-now reality is that Multnomah County operates with an unreliable 9-1-1 system.

Commissioner Leonard and Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who oversees the Bureau of Emergency Communication, need to stop shrugging off this issue, and need to stop dismissing professional emergency personnel.

We'd be far more forgiving of Leonard and Fritz stopped downplaying the problems with this system, and stopped making this personal by resorting to name calling.

It's time to drop the politics and come up with a fix.