POL Government Elected Officials Commissioner Amanda Fritz Blog
The 9-1-1 computer: On time, under budget, and it works - Printable Version - May 10, 2011 - 3 Comments

The new computer at the Bureau of Emergency Communications (BOEC) 9-1-1 Center went live on time, under budget, and works as expected.


Some of the media coverage would lead you to believe otherwise.  Here are the facts.


Buying a new computer to provide dispatching services between calltakers and front line providers (police, fire, and medical services) in Multnomah County was approved by the User Board in 2006.  The User Board is an advisory group at BOEC comprised of members from the agencies BOEC serves - Portland Police and Fire, Gresham, Fairview, Wood Village, Troutdale, and the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office.  The User Board considered the options of patching the old system or buying a new system in June 2006, and acknowledged the need for BOEC to buy the new Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) platform.  In 2006, a County-wide bond measure was recommended by the User Board as the funding mechanism to pay for the purchase and installation of the new system.  After further discussions including the User Board in 2007, the Portland City Council decided in 2008 to fund the purchase by Portland only, rather than trying for a County-wide bond. 


When I took office and was assigned BOEC in January 2009, I heard about the "we could  patch the old system for $500k" assertion, and looked into it.  I came to the same conclusion the User Board had, that buying a new computer was necessary.


Think about it: Is the home computer you use today the same as the one you were using 17 years ago? How about your work computer?  Likely not.  Computers today can do so much more than those of the 1990s.  And the old computers are hard to maintain, indeed may not even be serviced by their original manufacturer.  That's what we were looking at, for the 9-1-1 center.  I think we all agree, the 9-1-1 computer has to be reliable. Lives depend on it.


I concurred with the previous Commissioner in Charge of BOEC, Randy Leonard, that the new CAD was essential.  We selected Versaterm from the companies that responded to the Request For Proposals to sell us the new CAD, in part because they already serve Seattle and Sacramento, creating a West Coast network potential in the event of a major regional disaster such as a catastrophic earthquake.  They have provided CAD systems to other large cities serving multiple jurisdictions and agencies, including Salt Lake City, Vancouver B.C., and Halifax.  Versaterm has an impressive track record and we were confident that the system would function properly when implemented.  It does.


The implementation process was set up with an internal process manager, an independent paid consultant to oversee ongoing quality assurance, and a technical advisory committee including community members.  Commissioner Leonard and I collaborated on the oversight, providing additional checks and balances from two Council members instead of one.  We gave Council a full briefing in an open, televised public work session in fall 2010, and thereafter provided Council with monthly updates on assessments and progress towards implementation.


I authorized delayed implementation of the new CAD for two weeks in April, when preparatory checks revealed a needed adjustment. We fixed the problem, and went live with the new computer on April 17th.


The new computer works as expected. 


The new computer was budgeted to cost $16 million. It has been purchased and implemented for $14.5 million.  This cost was entirely covered by Portland's taxpayers.  None of the capital funding was passed to our partner jurisdictions.


Because BOEC serves all of Multnomah County, but is operated by the City of Portland, there is an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) with our partner jurisdictions that sets the percentage each must pay for operations.  The percentage is based on population.  Portland pays 80%, Gresham pays 12%, and the remaining four jurisdictions pay a total of 8%.  The new computer necessitates increased costs associated with operation and maintenance.   We need system experts on call 24/7 to correct any problems as soon as they arise.  Portland pays the lion’s share of these cost increases, however every jurisdiction will be expected to pay their portion, as specified in the IGA.


As with any new complex computer system, problems may surface, resulting in down time.  The old CAD had over 60 incidents of problems documented from January 1, 2011 to the conversion on April 17, and crashed once.  With the Versaterm system, only one intermittent problem occurred, resulting in three outages before the problem was isolated and corrected. Staff at the 9-1-1 center are trained to operate when the computer is down, under the old and new system, and no impact to services resulted from the downtime.


BOEC users are bound by contract to pay the charges Portland assesses.  We work hard to minimize those charges.  We are motivated to reduce computer maintenance costs, as soon the system proves to be stable.  We also work to keep other costs down.  In 2010, we negotiated a new labor contract which saved money for Portland and our partner jurisdictions.   


The new system is not the same as the one our police officers and fire fighters are accustomed to.  During this initial training/orientation period, it may require police officers to pull over to read the computer screen in their car, instead of reading while driving.  Police officers have radios, and 9-1-1 dispatchers give information over the radio as well as on the computer screen.  The front-line users are giving BOEC requests on adjustments to the new system such as font size, and we will respond to their requests as soon and as well as we can.  BOEC takes pride in providing great service to both callers and responders.


The staff at BOEC have performed like heroes with the new computer system.  Almost all front-line providers have risen to the challenge and worked with us, rather than criticizing.  I don't understand how anyone could call this new computer purchase and operation "a fiasco" when it was implemented on time, under budget, and works as expected


I realize some people find it hard to believe government can do anything right.  To try to turn this success into a failure is simply wrong, and political posturing at its worst.  This is one complex City of Portland computer project that was planned and implemented as close to perfectly as is humanly possible.  I thank Commissioner Randy Leonard, BOEC Director Lisa Turley, Project Manager Lisa Vasquez, and the entire team for their diligence and the excellent outcome on this work.  If you have reason to believe otherwise, I cordially invite you to make an appointment and come and talk with me about it.


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Posted by: frank ray - May 11, 2011 11:15 AM

Commissioner Fritz - Thanks for this post.  I appreciate your desire to inform the public about the facts of the CAD replacement project.  As a member of a user agency, the major complaint I hear from front-line users (firefighters) is that the new system is a lot more cumbersome to use than the old CAD.  Information that was available with a typed single-word or keystroke command in the old CAD requires multistep navigation through window menus in the new system.  In some instances, information that was readily accessible to firefighters within the old CAD is not available at all from the new CAD.  The consensus opinion I hear from our firefighters is that the new system is "a step backwards" from the old system.  This is frustrating to the outside user agencies, who will be paying more money for a system that makes it harder for them to do their job.  I realize that the old CAD was based on very old technology, which needed to be replaced sooner or later.  I also very much appreciate the fact that Portland paid for the purchase of the new system.  However, this particular CAD system makes it more expensive and more difficult for us to provide service to the public.  Hopefully these problems can be eventually be overcome.  Thanks again for providing this forum for users to provide constructive criticism about the new CAD.

Frank Ray
Gresham Fire Department
BOEC User Board Member

Posted by: frank ray - May 12, 2011 01:31 PM

Followup:I have solicited a list of specific problems from system users.  Hopefully you will be able to get these problems resolved for us.  Thanks again for being willing to dialogue with the users who rely on this critical computer tool to protect the lives/safety of the public.  The list below has not been edited.
Things that don’t work
Tap out / z-trons are hit and miss. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t
Cannot use the Z-Tron to change status from the station. This is different than the old Z-trons
OT.  BOEC did not cover the OT for the people at our agency to cover our expenses  for testing and  implementation
MDC barely work. Refresh rates are up to 5 minutes in some areas. Others they don’t work at all
There is supposed to be a fix for this.  Cell cards installed in the MDC at a cost to the agencies of $50 per month per MDC and it is unknown if the cell cards will work or not.
Pre-plans don’t work on most MDCs Company officers have reverted to hard copies
Map software is difficult to use and hard to see when it works.
Map is almost worthless most company officers have gone back to map books
MDC is very difficult to use while the rig is in motion. Button are too small to be useful for a touch screen
Signing in to the MDC does not work as initially described. We have had to use a work around to get it to work. The work around doesn’t work all the time.
Software frequently locks up the MDC. The MDC has to be re-booted and then you have to sign into the MDC from the beginning. This is impossible to do while responding to a call so all MDC function is no available until after the call is cleared and we can get the machine back up and running.
RMS data transfer is not even close to what was promised. We were told that we would get what we were getting before and we are not and are only getting about 90% of the incidents we respond to.
We are not getting even close to the amount of information on the MDCs as we used to.  No updates come in while responding to a call. Any changes that occur after we get tapped out we are not told about. The MDC refresh rate is so poor that we cannot expect to get updates

Posted by: Amanda Fritz - May 12, 2011 06:02 PM

Thank you, Frank.  I hope you have already sent this list to Lisa Turley and project staff.  I will send it again, to be sure.  BOEC attended to over 35 requests for service changes yesterday, and will get you and other providers responses.

For fastest response, all system users please email Lisa directly.

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