Chicago 911 calls 'simply vanish'

By Fran Spielman
The Chicago Sun-Times

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CHICAGO — Stacked-up calls to Chicago's 911 emergency center are "disappearing completely" from computer screens because of glitches in a $6 million upgrade to the dispatch system, call takers complained Thursday.

Just last month, Mayor Daley showcased the upgrade, which lets call takers and dispatchers see real-time video from surveillance cameras within 150 feet of any 911 call.

But then problems started cropping up, apparently tied to the servers installed three weeks ago as part of the upgrade. Calls that are "stacked" because police officers are responding to higher-priority calls have been "disappearing completely" from computer screens, sources said.

"They simply vanish and no record can be recalled or found," said a 911 call taker who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.

"I would not want my family to call needing the police and expecting the police to show up only to find out the call has disappeared from the system completely."

The city was promised that its on-screen mapping system would show railroad crossings to assist in rerouting emergency vehicles. But that hasn't happened.

Jennifer Martinez, a spokeswoman for the Office of Emergency Management and Communications, characterized the vanishing calls as a "display issue." She insisted that no "Priority One" calls are ever stacked and that no calls have gone unanswered.

"It's a minor issue with stacked calls. It's not that they disappear. It's just the display. If there's three jobs, you may only see one. But, they remain on the system, and dispatchers are still sending those jobs out," she said. "We haven't lost any of the records. The record remains in the system."

As for the railroad crossing problem, Martinez acknowledged that "only a handful" of work stations have the upgrade. "It's being rolled out in a phased approach," she said.

The computer problems are reminiscent of those that followed the 1995 opening of Chicago's 911 center at Madison and Loomis.

Burned before by a faulty computer-aided dispatch system, the Chicago Fire Department waited a year to move into the 911 center and continued to dispatch emergency vehicles manually for months after they got there because of computer software problems.

"Any time you do any computer upgrades, you experience some issues," Martinez said Thursday. "Considering this is the first major upgrade they've done in 10 years, they've been extremely pleased with the technology."

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