Oregon Police Say New 911 Dispatch System Has Risks

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.

Maxine Bernstein
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.

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