Ind. firefighters cite problems with new dispatch system

They said the new dispatch system does not send the appropriate fire department or piece of fire equipment to emergency calls


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Bloomington’s firefighter union has sent a letter to city and county officials citing concerns with the new software system dispatchers use to send first responders to emergencies in Monroe County.

Some firefighters say the new dispatch system does not send the appropriate fire department or piece of fire equipment to emergency calls, among other problems. Critics also complain they are back to where they were 10 to 15 years ago, listening to each and every radio call to determine which fire station and fire truck should respond to each new call.

Bloomington’s Fire Chief Roger Kerr fired back in his own letter, calling the allegations categorically false and unfounded. It was always a reality that bugs would need to be worked out during this transition to a new software system, he continued, adding the issues are related to changing to a more technologically advanced software that deviates from past practices.

“The ability of Central Dispatch to facilitate effective communications for Monroe County Public Safety agencies is essentially non-existent,” Bob Loviscek, president of Bloomington Metropolitan Professional Firefighters Local 586, wrote in a letter emailed late Tuesday night to the Monroe County commissioners, the Monroe County council and the Bloomington City Council.

Loviscek’s letter goes on to say Monroe County Dispatch’s change to a new software system, called Spillman, “has proved disastrous.”

“What is most important, and cannot be overstated, is that these issues put lives at risk. Lives of the general public and of all Monroe County Safety Workers! If the public were aware of the issues we are having right now, there would be repercussions,” Loviscek states in his letter, which is co-signed by Jim Allen, Doug Bartlett, Toby Liff and Shane Chapman, district presidents of the Bloomington Township Professional Firefighters, Ellettsville Professional Firefighters, Van Buren Professional Firefighters and Perry Clear-Creek Professional Firefighters, respectively.

‘Lives are not at risk’
Kerr wrote his letter on behalf of the city department, Bloomington Police Chief Mike Diekhoff and Jeff Schemmer, the communications director for Monroe County Central Emergency Dispatch.

“I want to be clear and assure the community that public safety has not been compromised,” Kerr stated. “Assertions of incompetence, that dispatch employees were not properly trained and that major issues were plaguing the system during the lead up to implementation, are again, simply inaccurate.”

The issues that the fire union addresses already have been addressed, are currently being addressed by public safety agencies and the vendor of the software or are misrepresentations, Kerr said.

The fire union’s letter outlines six continuing issues with the new software that the writers say impact firefighters and members of the IU Health Ambulance Service.

For example, dispatchers have not been answering calls from first responders, according to Loviscek.

“When we get on scene, we have to repeat ourselves over and over to get them to respond back to us,” he said by phone Wednesday. “It’s something that they monitor for our safety.”

Loviscek used the example of a firefighter needing help at a house fire. The firefighter in danger calls out a “mayday,” and a dispatcher repeats that message over the radio as a safety precaution in case a commander did not immediately hear the initial mayday call.

While dispatchers may not have time to respond during periods with a high volume of calls, there has been no documented instance of a dispatcher missing a request for additional resources or backup. “Lives are not at risk,” Kerr stated in his letter.

Fire stations are not being sent to emergency calls in their own jurisdictions, and the appropriate fire trucks are not being dispatched, critics say.

“Recommendations are just all messed up,” Ed Terrell, deputy chief of the Van Buren Township Fire Department said by phone Wednesday. “For some reason, it’s not recommending the correct agency for all of the calls that are needed. We’ve had times where it doesn’t recommend any fire department for a call.”

A man doing construction work on Interstate 69 was injured in late September. An ambulance was dispatched. Although the initial 911 call stated the man was possibly trapped under a pipe line, the Van Buren Fire Department was not dispatched to the call, Terrell said.

The man’s co-workers freed him.

“We had no idea what was going on until it was over,” Terrell said.

The Van Buren Fire Department, which protects the western portions of Monroe County, has been called out to emergency calls on Ind. 446, on the eastern side of the county.

While they respond to each and every emergency tone, firefighters have to contact dispatch and tell dispatchers which fire department and which piece of fire equipment should be notified and sent to the 911 call.

That can cause delays.

“It’s sometimes taking 10 minutes or better to get the correct fire department to respond,” Terrell said.

Kerr acknowledged there have been instances when fire departments have improperly sent outside of their response areas. But emergency responders and dispatchers have been able to coordinate and correct using radio communication without compromising the public’s safety, he said.

Departments have also been sent to incorrect addresses, which also increases emergency response time, Loviscek’s letter claims.

Kerr’s response: People phoning in emergencies sometimes provide incorrect addresses or misinformation.

Finally, the fire union’s letter claims that “status” buttons on fire trucks don’t work. The status buttons send four updates to dispatch: en route, on scene, clear and in-service and out of service.

Using a status button helps alleviate excess chatter over the radio, Loviscek said.

Emergency responders have always known the status buttons would be temporarily unavailable during this transition, Kerr said. Other forms of communications have been put in place, and new technologies are being explored for purchase.

Some firefighters named problems not addressed in the union letter. Critics say the “next in” method of dispatching, based on the county’s mutual-aid agreement, does not work with the new software.

While the Bloomington Township Fire Department’s Hazmat Team investigated a suspicious letter Monday at the Monroe County United Way, they got called to a car accident.

Bloomington Township’s two fire stations should have been marked “out of service,” and the next available department with the appropriate equipment should have been called out.

And some firefighters say they have not been receiving alerts about emergency calls on their cellphones and pagers.

Van Buren firefighters didn’t notice problems with the new dispatch system until Oct. 16, Terrell said. They have since started keeping a log of incorrect dispatches.

Deputy Chief Joel Bomgardner of the Bloomington Township Fire Department and Ellettsville Fire Chief Mike Cornman both lamented by phone on Wednesday the days of firefighters going into “night mode” or “alert mode” are gone.

The old dispatch system was so good, it could be filtered and tripped by the tones directed at individual stations. For example, Bloomington Township fire houses would only hear radio traffic intended for them. In Ellettsville, they would listen in alert modeand only respond when their specific alerts would sound.

Now, to be on the safe side, firefighters have to listen to each and every run.

“It’s really affecting our crews, listening to all our radio traffic,” Cornman said.

“Everyone knows and understands there are going to be bumps in the road with a new system,” Cornman continued. “Every time we think it’s being corrected, it goes in the other direction.”

The problems at Monroe County Dispatch didn’t start with the change in software.

In June, a lightning strike to a radio tower at the Bloomington police station knocked out several emergency communication systems, including the 911 call system, police radios, tornado sirens, internal computer systems and computer aided dispatch, also known as CAD.

Some of the damaged emergency communications systems, like 911 calls and the tornado sirens, were instantly rerouted to the Indiana University Police Department, which has its own dispatch system and serves as a backup.

Problems the old CAD, called LogiSIS, persisted as officials anticipated the launch of Spillman.

The board of commissioners signed a $1.2 million contract for Spillman, the Computer-Aided Dispatch and Records Management System in August 2013. In Monroe County’s contract with Spillman, the company recommends two years of future maintenance costs at an additional $121,000.

At the time, the company noted that the system would take about a year of testing and other set up before it went live. 

“I’m not so sure this was completely unexpected,” said Patrick Stoffers, president of the board of commissioners, noting that every time a new system is installed, there are always some pains. “I have every confidence that dispatch is working to get it resolved. I don’t find the chiefs’ concerns are misplaced.”

Monroe County Dispatch switched to the new system a month ago, on Sept. 22.

Schemmer sent an email on Oct. 14 to the fire chiefs and others that said concerns were being addressed.

“I want to remind everyone that with our previous system, initially, we didn’t have a lot of the features at the beginning that we had at the end,” Schemmer wrote. “There was a lot of trial and error in getting all of those systems to work. And that was over a period of years; we are trying the same over a period of weeks.”

Council member Marty Hawk said she was not surprised that firefighters sent a letter to elected officials.

Even people who sit around listening to police scanners at home have picked up on the problems, and Hawk said she’s heard concerns from firefighters to average citizens. 

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