Three years later, fire dispatch project still dogging Jacksonville
Apr 02, 2012 (The Florida Times-Union - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Three years after signing a contract to modernize its dispatch system, Jacksonville's fire department tested software last month meant to help dispatchers track and communicate better with fire crews.
It pulled the plug the same day.
"Units were not even getting the call" when an emergency happened, Fire Operations Chief Charles Drysdale said. "They were getting no notification through the tone alert. ... People would call up the station and say, 'hey, there's a fire in your district.' "
The $1.8 million project with Motorola Solutions, meant to make fire protection faster and more efficient, has dragged out years longer than either the city or its vendor expected. The city paid Motorola $704,000 for design, equipment and software delivery and installation in 2009, according to city records. Neither a finish date nor a final price tag is certain.
Fire officials don't know of any deaths or severe fire damage that resulted from the March 12 test, said Tom Francis, a department spokesman.
But if it can't resolve the problems, the city has lost time and effort for nothing.
The software was designed to help dispatchers assign and track each and every fire unit, and to instantly identify the nearest available units when calls come in. That, theoretically, would enable units to respond faster and to coordinate their actions.
'Back to square one'
City departments have asked lawyers for advice but haven't announced a plan for what to do next. Motorola hopes the city will let it keep trying, but a City Council member is urging department heads to start over.
"My personal thinking is I'd rather go back to square one. ... And I'd like the city to get its money back," Councilman Robin Lumb said. "I think I'm only going to be satisfied if it goes out for bid."
There wasn't any bidding the first time.
Fire officials had looked at four potential suppliers but were told in 2008 that the city wanted one of those, Motorola. The Sheriff's Office used Motorola already, the city was told the systems used the same software. And the company offered a deal that included some price discounts, Lumb was told by fire officials last month.
The computer-aided dispatch software, called Premier CAD, was supposed to be installed in about nine months. But by the end of 2009, technical crews realized there was a problem getting Motorola's software to work with the department's Emergency Dispatch Alert System, or EDAS, an older system that sends alerts to station houses. The contract clearly said it should have worked.
When it hadn't found a solution by August 2010, Motorola offered to buy and install -- at no extra charge -- equipment from Zetron, a company that markets to many agencies and whose packages can cost six figures.
But the city had two objections: Motorola wouldn't rewire the 50-plus stations to handle Zetron -- and no one was sure how much that would have cost -- and the city's information technology staff said EDAS is more versatile.
Motorola countered that Zetron wasn't perfect but would have worked.
"It's an industry-standard alerting system," said Steve Gorecki, a company spokesman. "Although the functionality may not be exactly the same as Jacksonville's homegrown system, it's right out of the box and ... we have a standard interface."
After their idea was turned down, Motorola tried again to make its equipment work with EDAS. During last month's live test, the department recognized more problems as call traffic increased.
Gorecki said Motorola makes a point of not leaving customers in the lurch and will make sure the system works when it goes live. The city isn't sure it wants to wait.
Fire and Rescue Director Martin Senterfitt and James Cole Cartledge, the city's director of intra-governmental services, both told Lumb they asked city lawyers to study the contract and offer some guidance.
"We need to know what our options are," Cartledge said.
Lumb said he thinks the city has tried long enough, and he hopes Mayor Alvin Brown will agree to move on to new options.
"I'm hoping the administration will try to hit the reset button on this and go back," Lumb said. "And I'm hoping Motorola will be cooperative."
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