By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 17, 2005
Less than a year after installing a multimillion-dollar computer system in
Fairfax County to dispatch its emergency vehicles, county officials are
talking about discarding it and buying a new one.
Since May, Fairfax fire officials have had no information on how quickly
their stations respond to emergencies. And the new computer system has
crashed or been taken down for repairs so often that dispatchers frequently
must revert to the old method of communicating by radio. When that happens,
police officers are discouraged from checking for warrants or alerts on
suspects to avoid overwhelming dispatchers.
The contract for the $3.2 million Altaris system — which costs an
additional $2.7 million a year to maintain — was awarded in 2000 without
competitive bidding. The Fairfax police department, which oversees the
dispatch center, recommended the no-bid contract because the county had
worked with the company for 16 years, officials said.
Now county officials say the next dispatch system will be put up for public
bid. And Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said
an investigation is needed into how Altaris was designed, purchased and
"A flawed decision-making process has cost us money we did not need to
expend," Connolly said. "Unfortunately, it would appear that a small number
of people were allowed to make technical decisions for which they were not
The computer-aided dispatch system, or CAD, allows dispatchers to give only
the initial alert of a fire or police call over the radio. The rest of the
details — descriptions of suspects, hazardous materials at a fire scene —
are then transmitted to a small terminal in a police cruiser or firetruck.
This reduces radio traffic, and thus the number of dispatchers needed, and
keeps information on a computer monitor so officers and firefighters don’t
have to take notes while they’re rushing to a scene.
The problems with Altaris do not affect emergency responses by the police
or fire departments. Even if the system is down, dispatchers are
experienced at communicating by radio alone.
The internal uproar over the problems with Altaris, which police officers
privately refer to as "Al-terrible," spurred Fairfax to hire two
consultants, Capital P of Leesburg and Winbourne & Costas of Washington, at
a cost of $94,092, to analyze the system. The consultants concluded that
the system — purchased from PRC Public Sector of McLean, which is now
owned by Northrop Grumman Information Technology — provided no real
enhancements and has significant operating problems.
"We wanted to have basic information to know where our units were," Fairfax
Fire and Rescue Chief Michael P. Neuhard said. "Who’s on a call? We wanted
it faster, simpler, and we wanted to get it in ways that were easier. We
have not been able to get that."
Deputy County Executive Robert A. Stalzer has been assigned to oversee the
effort to stabilize Altaris and guide the county into a new dispatch center
in 2007. Last month, the county decided to hire Winbourne & Costas, at a
cost of $500,000, to write another report about what will be needed for its
next dispatch system.
"I can’t say we’re going to buy a new CAD system. We probably will,"
Stalzer said. He acknowledged that Altaris was bought without competing
bids. "That ain’t going to happen now," he said. "In the new [dispatch
center], we will definitely use competitive processes throughout in
soliciting whatever we have to do."
Northrop Grumman defended Altaris as a top-of-the-line system that had some
rough times at first but will soon be running at top efficiency.
"We’ve been doing CAD development for over 30 years," said Michael Poth,
director of public safety solutions for Northrop. "What Fairfax was getting
was the best of breed of all those 30 years of changes. Altaris is better
than what they had. . . . It has a lot of features the county hasn’t been
able to enjoy, and it has the growth capacity to support all the public
safety needs of Fairfax for at least the next 10 years."
County police bought their first CAD system from PRC in 1984 and gradually
installed terminals in all police and fire vehicles and stations. In 2000,
Northrop Grumman bought PRC.
Over the years, the police continued to go through PRC for upgrades and
repairs. So when the system began to crumble in the late 1990s, the
dispatch center’s director, Michael B. Fischel, scouted for a replacement.
He didn’t look far. PRC was "embedded in the county," Fischel said. "It was
our judgment to continue that relationship. In my mind, it would be cheaper
than to start with a new vendor."
State and county rules require competitive bidding for the purchase of
goods and services. But exceptions are allowed, such as in an emergency or
when only one vendor makes the goods.
In May 2000, Fischel wrote a three-page memo to the county’s director of
purchasing that characterized the purchase of Altaris as an upgrade rather
than a replacement. He noted that PRC had been managing and enhancing the
dispatch system since 1984 and that its expertise and familiarity with the
system "precludes contracting directly with other vendors." The county
purchasing authorities agreed and issued the contract to PRC.
J. Thomas Manger, the police chief at the time, said he was not a
technology expert and relied on Fischel’s recommendations. Fischel left his
post in 2001 and became a consultant. Manger retired last year to become
Montgomery County’s police chief.
Government agencies prefer competitive bidding so market forces will
"ensure good prices and high-quality goods and services," said Steven L.
Schooner, a George Washington University law professor who specializes in
procurement law. But exceptions to competitive bidding are not unusual at
the federal and local levels when circumstances demand them, according to
Schooner and Rick Grimm, executive director of the National Institute of
Of the 2,463 active contracts in Fairfax, 573, more than 23 percent, were
no-bid contracts, county records show.
Since installation was completed in May, Altaris has struggled, police
officials say. Police Lt. Col. Steve Sellers said the police and fire
departments "identified more than 400 problems. They’re into the mid-200s
now in terms of fixing the glitches or problems."
The county’s 400 square miles are divided into eight patrol districts.
Officer Marshall Thielen, a police union board member, said Altaris at
times has misidentified the district where an address is located. "People
would get dispatched to one place, then another place," Thielen said.
"Thank God nobody got hurt."
The system crashed frequently for many months after its launch. "It’s down
all the time," said Capt. Michael Mohler, the head of the firefighters
union. "I don’t feel comfortable personally using what’s in front of me."
Eleven months later, the crashes are less frequent, but Altaris still goes
down whenever repairs are made, requiring a switch to the radio system.
Police officers and firefighters said that in those cases, it’s difficult
to write down information about suspects while they’re driving, but they
Officers are instructed to limit their use of the radio when Altaris is
down because there aren’t enough dispatchers to handle all their requests.
They can call a dispatcher to check for outstanding warrants or suspect
alerts, and dispatchers still have access to state and national databases.
But if a person isn’t acting suspiciously or giving officers a reason to
dig for background information, they frequently do not call in a request
for a records check when Altaris is down, said Officer Josh David,
president of the Fairfax police union.
Neuhard, the fire chief, noted that when the system is down, details about
all addresses in the county are unavailable. "No standing information about
hazards, information of interest to the responders," the chief said. Nor
can he get data on response times.
"We were very surprised when we cut over and we found this system that
didn’t meet our needs and was providing some very basic problems with
reliability and dependability," Neuhard said.
"We look very closely at how long it takes us to respond to emergencies. We
do that every month by monitoring those numbers. Quite frankly, right now
I’m not getting that information. How is your neighborhood fire station
doing? I can’t tell you."