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Officials: Firefighters, EMTs endangered by erratic 911 system

Authorities said the malfunctions in the system deprives responders of recent emergency information


By Don Jacobs
Knoxville News Sentinel

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — A poorly performing computer program at the Knox County E-911 Center is placing law enforcement officers and firefighters in danger by depriving them of updated information on emergency calls, authorities said Wednesday.

The $6.2 million Intergraph Computer Aided Dispatch program went online two years ago and has been problematic ever since. The maintenance contract adds more than $300,000 each year to that cost.

"It was a misdesign from the start," said Tonya Cum, technology coordinator for the E-911 center.

Knoxville Fire Department Assistant Chief Mark Wilbanks said the system that is supposed to provide information directly to emergency workers' computers in the field "will grey out." That deprives officers of the most recent information from 911 dispatchers of events at an emergency scene.

Milbanks represented the users' committee Wednesday when addressing the Knox County E-911 Board of Directors. The users' committee includes representatives of each of the emergency service providers using the 911 radio system in Knoxville and Knox County.

"Every 8-10 hours we have some sort of little glitch," Wilbanks said. Most of those glitches occur between 5 p.m. and 7 a.m., he said.

"Knoxville Police Department has experienced the brunt of the glitches in the last 8-10 weeks."

Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch said he wasn't aware of any officers being injured because of the Intergraph system. But he said the potential for a life-threatening situation because of the system is concerning.

If not for diligent 911 dispatchers working to assure officers have needed information, there may have been an injurious event, said Julia Small, technical services supervisor for the Police Department.

"Our dispatchers and officers in the field have developed a workaround and should be commended for their efforts," Small said.

"The officer may think he's on a call from 20 minutes ago and they're not getting the most recent information available on the call."

Dispatchers try to refrain from sending sensitive or confidential information over the public safety airwaves, Small said. Those details should be shared with officers by way of their in-cruiser mobile data terminal. Dispatchers, however, too often have to use the radio to communicate with officers.

"They have to repeat themselves several times, like giving out addresses multiple times," Small said.

The Intergraph system also is designed to provide firefighters with a digital picture of a structure reported on fire. Firefighters would know how many floors are involved, the location of doors and any special precautions about dangerous chemicals or criminal activity at the structure.

Those images and information, Milbanks said, have not come across. Firefighters are left to page through massively thick books on the fire engines to seek drawings and pictures of the structure reportedly on fire.

"We're over two years into this and we think it's going to get better each time, but it actually has gotten worse," he said.

Milbanks said the Intergraph CAD product "was supposed to be the best system out there."

"It's not a stable system," he said. "It's never been a stable system."

Alan Bull, interim executive director of the E-911 Center, said he has withheld the final payment on the Intergraph system.

"I really believe they don't know the product," Bull said.

Milbanks said "nobody from Intergraph seems to know what the problem is."

Intergraph did not respond Wednesday to an email sent to its marketing unit outlining allegations of its system endangering the lives of emergency workers in Knox County and systemic problems in other cities.

Don Howell, attorney for the 911 board of directors, said turnover within the company is part of the problem in seeking resolution of issues.

"The people we're dealing with now aren't the people we've been dealing with," he said.

An eight-person team from Intergraph is slated next week to diagnose the problems. If they can't fix it, members of the E-911 board of directors said Wednesday they are ready to bring legal action.

Howell said he has had numerous communications with Intergraph representatives that the company has not met its contractual obligations because of the performance of the system.

"This is kind of a last straw for users," Milbanks said. "If they don't have it fixed by Friday, we're finished."

Milbanks told the E-911 board of directors cities across the nation have similar issues with the Intergraph product. He has spoken with public safety officials in Boston, Louisville, Kentucky Washington, D.C., and Athens-Clarke County, Georgia.

"They said they've had basically the same problems," he said. "They've had a terrible response time and they don't know what the problem is."

The board of directors voted unanimously Wednesday to extend a one-year contract to Bull, with the option of a second year if the board deems it necessary. The first year contract terminates July 1, 2018.

Bull has served as interim executive director of the E-911 center since April 2016, when former executive director Bob Coker resigned. Bull is paid $120,000 annually. With the approval Wednesday of a 2.5 percent raise for all employees, Bull's pay increases to $123,000 a year.

"He's been doing a very good job and working very hard and made some improvements," said Knoxville Fire Chief Stan Sharp, who serves on the E-911 board and is chairman of the personnel committee.

Sharp said the board next year will launch a search for a new executive director. With Bull's contract extended a second year, the board can assure a two-month overlap with the new executive director.

Copyright 2017 Knoxville News Sentinel

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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