Our Opinion

Portland city commissioners Amanda Fritz and Randy Leonard have gone into full defensive mode to justify purchase of a problem-laden 9-1-1 dispatch system. But the more they try to downplay serious issues related to this system, the more this appears to be a nearly $15 million mistake.

Leonard, who announced Tuesday that he won't seek re-election, injected himself into the 9-1-1 debate. First, he dismissed complaints about the dispatch system from the city's police union, saying that the Portland Police Bureau is plagued with an enduring 'culture of complaint.' Then, on Monday, he fired one of the few city bureaucrats - Public Safety Systems Revitalization Program Director Lisa Vasquez - who reportedly had been willing to speak up about management of the problematic system.

Vasquez was mentioned in a three-page letter from Portland Police Association President Daryl Turner outlining problems with the system that was delivered to the council on June 21. It followed numerous not-for-attribution complaints from officers to the Portland Tribune about the system. Leonard casually shrugs off their concerns, however, accusing them of having a 'hissy fit.'

We wonder, however, if Leonard is ready to say that a culture of complaint and propensity for hissy fits also are infecting 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 Communications, but it serves all law-enforcement agencies, fire departments and ambulance companies in Multnomah County, including emergency services in Gresham, Troutdale and Fairview.

Turner's letter, which Leonard discounts so easily, had backing from a cross-section of countywide emergency responders. The letter did not simply demand repairs to the 9-1-1 system - it itemized specific problems that have been reported by officers using the system on mobile computers in the field.

For officers and other emergency responders, the new 9-1-1 system represents a clear step backward from the previous system, which was aging but functioned well for the individual needs of the agencies it served.

Hundreds of flaws have been reported by users of the new system. But here's the worst part: Some of them probably cannot be fixed. Versaterm, the Canadian company that programmed the replacement 9-1-1 system, is only going to be able to do so much to customize it.

Where from here?

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

Leonard and Fritz, who oversees the Bureau of Emergency Communications, must stop their defensive behavior. Rather than chide officers who have to live with this system, the politicians should redouble efforts to fix what can be fixed and talk openly about what cannot be fixed.

It's also time for the City Council to get involved by holding a hearing about the problems. The risk, if these concerns do not receive a full public airing that leads to solutions, is that the 9-1-1 dispatch system will rank alongside the Water Bureau's billing system as just another Portland technological fiasco.

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