The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.
May 19--When Multnomah County probation officers visited an apartment in Gresham's Rockwood neighborhood and emergency dispatchers typed in the address, the county's new computer dispatch system automatically sent Troutdale Officer David Licht to it.
The street number of the address was 215 -- which also happens to be the number of Licht's police unit.
"I was dispatched three times by the system," Licht said, to the address outside his city's boundary. On Wednesday, he was sent to a downtown Portland call, at an address that started "SW 215."
That's one example of hundreds of glitches officers have reported with the new $14.5 million 9-1-1 dispatch system serving Portland and all of Multnomah County. A month into operation, the new computer dispatch system has raised more than 400 safety concerns. Police and firefighters complain that it's cumbersome and slow.
It also has irked municipal police chiefs, who said they were surprised to learn in January -- more than a year after the contract was signed -- that their agencies would have to help pay $2.5 million annually to keep the system operating.
In February, the public safety agency partners who sit on a user board voted not to pay their share of the maintenance costs, setting up a showdown with the city of Portland and Bureau of Emergency Communications. Portland Commissioner Amanda Fritz said the partner agencies are bound by an intergovernmental agreement to pay.
The user board meets again Thursday, and its chair is demanding a timeline and projected costs for fixes.
Supervisors say the system is losing track of officers, putting police and the public at risk.
On Monday, Licht had cleared a threat call at least 30 minutes earlier, but a sergeant checking his mobile computer screen would think Licht was still en route to the call.
When Licht runs a license plate, he's dismayed his computer screen doesn't provide a priority alert if it comes back to a stolen car or person with a warrant, as the old system did. Instead, he is forced to hunt through multiple messages to learn whether he's stopped a likely criminal.
And, when an officer radios that he's chasing a suspect from the original call location, back-up officers have to scroll through several screens to find the updates that used to pop up at the top of a screen, crucial details police need before an emergency encounter.
Fairview Police Chief Ken Johnson, chair of BOEC's user board, said the dispatch problems are unacceptable, and should have been addressed before the system went live. "We're risking people's lives," he said.
He's also argued that Lisa Turley, director of the Bureau of Emergency Communications, kept the user board in the dark about the maintenance costs. He said the board also was not told that an upgrade of the old system was an option that would have cost much less, at an estimated $500,000.
"We put a lot of faith in what BOEC was telling us and that was our mistake," Johnson said.
Fritz and Turley defend the new system and argue that problems are to be expected with such a complex change. Turley said some are the result of user, or training errors. Fritz inherited the project from Commissioner Randy Leonard, who oversaw emergency dispatch when much of the early planning occurred into a new computer dispatch system. Portland signed a contract with Canada-based Versaterm Inc. in September 2009.
Fritz said she and Leonard agreed that the upgrade of the old Northrup Grumm system, in use for 17 years, wasn't viable. Turley said it was "so customized" that it would have been too risky to upgrade, as two of three people who provided the support services have left the city.
Turley said she didn't learn of the full maintenance costs from the city Bureau of Technical Services until December, and reported to the board in January. "They're looking for somebody to blame, and I'm the bureau director, and if there's a problem, it rests with me," Turley said.
Mark Greinke, the city's chief technological officer, said annual maintenance costs include $489,000 to Versaterm, and $2 million to Portland's Bureau of Technical Services, including 24/7 technical support and overtime costs.
On her blog Monday in response to a Portland Tribune story, Fritz wrote that the new computer system was implemented "as close to perfectly as is humanly possible," a pronouncement that's drawn guffaws from police.
Portland Officer Daryl Turner, president of the Portland police rank-and-file union, said he has "serious safety concerns."
Troutdale Sgt. Joel Wendland said he's dealt with changing computer systems over his 15-year police career. "We'll get used to change," he said. "But to me, the availability of information when time is of the essence, it's horrible."
This week, Fritz also informed T. J Browning, a citizen representative who has attended several BOEC user board meetings and publicly criticized the process, that she's not a member of the board. Meanwhile, Fritz's chief of staff called another woman who only attended one board meeting last summer to ask if she's still interested in serving.
BOEC receives about 950,000 emergency and non-emergency calls a year, serving a population of about 727,065. The new Versaterm dispatch system is also used by Seattle, Sacramento and Salt Lake City.
The contract for the new, Windows-based system promised mobile mapping and automatic vehicle-locator features that would allow the computer to send the nearest car to a call.
But officers say the font size on the screens makes it difficult to read while driving, and the computer buries the most up-to-date information on a call at the bottom of several screens. Officers have to press a "refresh" button multiple times to get the latest details, and the GPS auto-locator system isn't working.
"It's just not holding true to what the expectations were," Troutdale Sgt. Marc Shrake said.
Jim Churchill, who retired from BOEC last year after Turley threatened to fire him for blocking access to a co-worker's computer terminal, said the city failed to seriously consider two alternatives: upgrading the old system for $500,000, or integrating it with Clackamas and Washington counties' dispatch. (Churchill said he blocked access to a co-worker's terminal for security purposes.)
The old system was customized to each agency's needs to benefit their operations, but Churchill said Turley was insistent the county go to an off-the shelf system. "I essentially called it the Walmart CAD," Churchill said. "I was ordered never to use that term."
Turley and Fritz say they're working to address the concerns. "There are just some tweaks and fine-tuning, and we are in the process of addressing them," Turley said. "It's not like we don't recognize these issues. After they get used to the system, they'll love it."
"Yes, there is difficulty in change. As leaders, we need to help our people through this."
Fritz added, "We're kind of feeling like we bought a brand new pony, and we're getting complaints because it had mud on its feet."
Portland paid for the new dispatch system, but operation costs are divided among the agencies that use it on a percentage based on population. Portland pays 80 percent, Gresham 14 percent, and the remaining locales -- Troutdale, Fairview, Multnomah County and Wood Village together pay about 6 percent.
So, who will pay the ongoing maintenance costs?
"That's an issue they're going to have to take up with Portland taxpayers, because the smaller agencies can't absorb it," Johnson said this week.
Fritz said she recognizes communication could have been better with the partner agencies. She pledged to work with BOEC to keep costs down, but she expects the partners to pay their share.
"They're bound by contract," Fritz said.
-- Maxine Bernstein