Dispatchers doubt 911 software's safety

Copyright 2006 The Salt Lake Tribune
All Rights Reserved 
The Salt Lake Tribune  

Firefighters looked on as a plume of smoke billowed above South Jordan where a house was engulfed in flames.

The firefighters were supposed to be there. But because of a dispatching error, they were sent somewhere else.

While the dispatcher typed in the correct address - at 9900 S. 1300 West - the computer system didn't recognize the entry and instead hit a different address miles away at 9900 South and Wasatch Boulevard.

The August 2003 incident illustrates a common problem at the Valley Emergency Communications Center (VECC) in West Valley City, the nerve center of police and fire dispatching for 21 towns and cities in Salt Lake County.

"It's riddled with problems," says Valerie Zecher, who was VECC's technical services manager until January. She believes the system is unreliable and difficult to use. "It jeopardizes the safety of the public, in my opinion."

Two recent reports about the Spillman Technologies Inc. computer-aided dispatch system - one by the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International and the other by RCC Consultants - point to substantial problems with the software, but members of VECC's boards of operations and trustees say they are confident in Spillman's product and do not have immediate plans to replace it.

Carl Simpson, VECC's executive director, says he is holding Spillman's "feet to the fire" to improve the software. The company has said the improvements will occur in a round of upgrades slated to be released later this year and in 2007.

However, in Waukesha County, Wis., where a VECC-like dispatch center has used the Spillman system since 2004, officials are more skeptical.

Richard Tuma, the center's director, says that while staff continue to work with Spillman, they have hired a consultant to begin exploring options.

"The big issue is: Are we putting our customers first, meaning not only the public safety agencies we serve but also the residents we serve, by staying with this system?"

Brookfield, Wis., police, he says, which are served by the Waukesha County Center, voiced concerns about the system after a 17-year-old boy was crushed to death by a car that slid off the back of a tow truck. Officers contend the center took too long to send help.

Dean Marquardt, director of administration for the city of Brookfield, the largest city served by the Waukesha County Center, says the software appears to work well for single agencies, but not large, consolidated centers such as the ones in Waukesha and Salt Lake counties.

Too many keystrokes: Alicia Wassmer, a VECC dispatcher since 2000, says it's easy to lose track of what she is doing and make mistakes on the system. The number of keystrokes required to fix wrong addresses is especially cumbersome.

"I have to jump over a lot of hurdles because of Spillman," she says.

For example, a man who recently called with chest pains said he was in the area of 6200 South and 700 East. Wassmer entered the address. The computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system, however, spit back 6200 S. 700 West. She overrode the system and the paramedics, in turn, were sent to the right place.

But, she says, "That probably delayed the call three to four minutes."

In Waukesha County, dispatchers have experienced similar problems, Tuma says.

"We have had some issues where dispatch times have been delayed and we have had some issues where the accuracy of the [addresses] has caused us several problems," he says.

A study conducted by The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International in December 2005 found Waukesha's system causes "routine delays in processing" and is virtually "unusable" during busy times.

Ultimately, the study found, the Wisconsin center's CAD system "is not supporting the primary mission of [emergency call receiving and dispatching] very effectively."

Spillman marketing manager Chuck Leonhardt says Waukesha's unique address system - which is different from other address systems in the nation - was not taken into consideration in the sale and purchase of the Spillman system.

"Had we fully realized the complexity of the address system, we would not have recommended it to Waukesha," he says. Now the company is working, at no additional cost, to fix the problem, he says.

Simpson says Spillman has largely fixed the problem at VECC. While the system at one point only had a 40 percent acceptance rate for addresses, that has been improved to 98 percent.

"There is no perfect CAD system," he says. "Because if there was, we'd all be using it and there would be no competition out there."

And, he says, VECC has to accept some responsibility for problems with the CAD system because VECC has not always properly maintained the software and dispatchers at times lacked training.

Zecher, however, believes the CAD system is fundamentally flawed.

"They're spending all of this time Band-aiding and patching and fixing, and they need to get down into the core of it and change the way the core of it works before they can have something that is viable," she says.

Leonhardt vigorously defends the product, noting the company has more than 600 customers nationwide and a 90 percent retention rate among those customers.

"In no way, shape or form should [the CAD system] be deemed a public-safety hazard," he said. "That's just completely wrong."

However, Simpson says, there are still a number of problems that, if not fixed by early next year, could prompt VECC to begin shopping around.

System often 'unusable': Fearful for their jobs, some VECC dispatchers are reluctant to talk publicly about the difficulties they have performing basic functions.

In an anonymous, undated letter addressed to VECC's board of trustees, one dispatcher wrote on behalf of other dispatchers: "Our CAD has been so problematic for so long that we have just gotten used to holding it together with duct tape and baling wiring.

" 'We' were thrilled when we learned that a company had been hired to hopefully provide a fair and unbiased evaluation that will reveal, again, what we have known for years. This CAD is at times unsafe and hard to operate."

The evaluator the dispatcher refers to, RCC Consultants, was hired by VECC to provide an independent audit of the CAD system. In its first draft of its report, published Nov. 7, RCC concluded that the system "does not fully meet the requirements of VECC."

Furthermore, RCC found, Spillman's timeline for making VECC's system 90 percent compliant was 18 months. A critical issue, RCC found, "is whether the agency can wait that long for the functionality."

Purchasing a new system, however, could cost between $2.5 and $3 million, the report states.

After the report was published, VECC's board of operations, made up of the agency's fire and police chiefs, directed the consulting firm to meet with VECC management, members of the board and representatives of Spillman.

RCC, in turn, revised many of its scores of the Spillman system.

According to minutes from a Dec. 21 meeting of the VECC board of trustees, composed of mayors and other city officials from the cities served by VECC, Murray Police Chief Pete Fondaco reported that VECC employees, in their meetings with RCC, had "filtered" information. After the board's meetings with RCC and Spillman, however, the communication was "open" and the report was reviewed "item by item."

Even after the revisions, however, the new RCC report, published Feb. 7, still concluded Spillman's system did not meet VECC's needs.

Why this CAD system? VECC purchased the Spillman CAD system for $484,000 in 2000.

Instead of issuing a request for proposals, however, the dispatch center "sole-sourced" the deal with Spillman, a Salt Lake City-based company.

One of the primary reasons the system was chosen, says Leonhardt, is the Spillman CAD system is compatible with Spillman's law records system, also used by VECC, that manages police and jail records. Both VECC and Spillman understood they would work together to develop a CAD system to meet VECC's needs.

Because VECC and Spillman served the same Salt Lake valley agencies, "we felt that our partnership would be mutually beneficial," Leonhardt says.

Some VECC employees, however, have questioned board members' possible connections to the Utah company.

Perry Koger, for example, now a full-time employee at Spillman, was at one time simultaneously working for the Murray Police Department, which was one of the most vocal advocates for Spillman. Koger's boss was Fondaco, who now chairs VECC's board of operations.

Fondaco could not be reached for comment.

Leonhardt confirmed Koger's employment at both the police department and the company, but said Koger never stood to make any money by actively marketing the CAD product.

"We firmly believe no conflict of interest existed," he says.

Some board members, both police and fire chiefs, say the software has generally worked well and will continue to do so as Spillman follows through with its upgrades.

"As far as the police are concerned, we haven't had a problem with the Spillman CAD system. It has worked fine for the police," says Midvale Police Chief Gerald Maughan. "We have glitches once in a while but we're able to work through those and solve the problem."

Craig Black, West Valley City's assistant police chief, says Spillman seems capable of working out the bugs in the system. That being the case, it doesn't make sense to buy new software.

"At least in my mind, I feel satisfied the issues have been identified over the last few years and are certainly resolvable," he says.

Others, however, refuse to discuss the CAD system.

"I have no comment on this issue. Period," says South Salt Lake Fire Chief Steve Foote.

Problems & solutions for VECC's dispatch

Problem: Dispatchers enter one address, the system spits out another.

Solution: Have VECC maintain the address database. The software will only recommend to the dispatcher addresses that are found in the database, but currently individual agencies maintain separate databases with sometimes-conflicting data.

Problem: The system will select the closest unit "as the crow flies" and fails to take into account such factors as speed limits and driving time.

Solution: An upgrade to the system will accurately calculate the total drive time to reach a call by taking into account barriers such as rivers, canyons and limited-access highways.

Problem: The system requires too many keystrokes and mouse clicks.

Solution: Upgrades to the system would make call dispatching easier and faster.

Sources: Valerie Zecher, VECC's former technical services manager; Chuck Leonhardt, marketing manager, Spillman Technologies, maker of VECC's software system. 

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