Officers complain that $6.3 million system could put police, public in danger
By Tony Plohetski
Wednesday, November 24, 2004
The call popped up on the computer screen in an Austin police officer’s patrol car last month, alerting him to a fire on Parmer Lane in North Austin. The officer grabbed his radio, called a dispatcher and asked what was happening. The dispatcher told him she didn’t know anything about it. He went anyway to secure the scene while firefighters extinguished the blaze. The officer and his boss investigated, only to learn later that the department’s new dispatching system had somehow routed the call from the 911 call-taker to the officer, bypassing the dispatch center.
The supervisor, Sgt. Dan Armstrong, saw the potential for disaster had the officer decided it was a mistake and did not respond.
"There was in fact a fire," Armstrong wrote to his lieutenant. "What if this was a burglary or a sexual assault, how could we explain that to the public?"
It was not an isolated problem.
Since the $6.3 million dispatch network was launched six months ago, officers and system managers have logged more than 100 problems, ranging from delays in getting information sent to and from computers mounted in patrol cars to dispatchers not knowing the location of officers on the streets.
City officials say no one has been injured and no calls have gone unanswered because of the glitches.
However, widespread concern among many officers prompted 14 of the department’s 16 commanders this week to sign a memo to Chief Stan Knee expressing "several serious officer safety and citizen safety issues." It said they would prefer the department’s former 18-year-old system to the new multimillion-dollar technology.
Under both systems, calls from the public — a fire or a burglary, for example — are answered by a call-taker, who types information into a computer and sends it to a dispatcher. The dispatcher, who tracks where officers are located in the city, then sends the information to the nearest officer mainly through computer but sometimes also via radio.
The new system was designed to help the dispatchers for law enforcement, firefighters and paramedics communicate instantly so they could coordinate responses in the field. Before the new system, they had to use the phone because their computer systems couldn’t be linked.
E-mails and memos obtained by the Austin American-Statesman detail many of the complaints:
•At least four 911 or 311 calls put in the system by call-takers have been delayed several minutes before reaching dispatchers. Peter Collins, chief information officer for the city, said he thinks one call was high priority, but he did not recall specifics of the incident. He said the company that sold the system, TriTech Software Systems in San Diego, has since fixed that problem.
•Officers have reported delays when they request information about outstanding warrants or vehicle owners, which dispatchers send to patrol car computers. Normally, a response would take 30 seconds to a minute. However, with the new system, it has taken several minutes to hours in some cases, leaving officers in the dark about possibly dangerous subjects.
•Some information has been inconsistent. One data search on a person by a dispatcher could show no criminal record, while a second search moments later could show prior arrests.
•Dispatchers at times have not known the status and locations of officers in the field because of delays in computer messages. That could leave dispatchers sending back-up officers to the wrong place.
"It is a precarious situation," Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza said Wednesday. "The new CAD (computer-aided dispatch) system was intended to improve the way our dispatchers and our officers respond to calls for assistance, and it hasn’t done that yet."
Collins said the city does not think the problems are a result of user error. Officers have been told to rely less on their computers and more on their radios until the problems are fixed.
TriTech officials said in a written statement that the company has provided constant technical support to the city, including 3,000 hours since the system started.
"The CAD system is working, and the ability to respond to 911 emergencies and dispatch appropriate personnel has not malfunctioned in any way," TriTech chief executive Chris Maloney said in an e-mail. "I am personally flying to Austin next week with a team of our engineers to oversee the modifications to the messaging section of the system."
Collins, the city information chief, said, "This is a vendor issue, and the vendor is being held accountable."
Cities across the United States have been shifting toward linking dispatch systems since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Austin’s network project began in the late 1990s when city officials decided the former system was outdated.
Collins said a committee consisting of representatives from the city’s public safety agencies and the Travis County sheriff’s department developed a list of several dozen requirements for the new dispatch system.
Five companies, including TriTech, which opened in 1992 and has developed systems in San Diego, Orlando, Fla., and Buffalo, N.Y., sought the contract. TriTech officials said in their written statement that their equipment has processed millions of emergency calls with no significant problems.
Collins said the committee unanimously chose TriTech. The company began installing the system in 2001.
Austin Fire Department and Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services began using the network in April of this year, followed by police a month later. Garza said firefighters and paramedics have experienced only minor problems with the system.
The police department has had a different experience.
Officials said problems have been more pronounced among police because of the volume of calls and because officers must communicate more frequently with dispatchers.
Mike Sheffield, president of the Austin Police Association, said he learned of problems with the system on its first day and quickly met with department leaders. He said the system still has too many problems.
"There comes a point where you say, this isn’t getting where it should be," Sheffield said. "It is potentially putting people in harm’s way."
Cpl. Rodney Moeller, who works in Central-West Austin, expressed similar frustration in an e-mail to his lieutenant last month. He said one of his officers was making a traffic stop at Justin Lane and North Lamar Boulevard and was attempting to arrest a suspect on outstanding warrants. The officer called dispatch, the e-mail said, and was told the "computer system had lost him."
The dispatcher told the officer he had disappeared from her screen and she didn’t know his location — a serious problem had the officer needed backup.
"This system is going to get an officer hurt," Moeller wrote.
Collins said he has tracked problems daily and will present his lists to TriTech workers.
Garza said the company would not be paid in full until the problems are solved.
"It has been made very clear to them that they better get it done," he said. "We will do whatever we need to do to protect our officers and our citizens.