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Madison, municipalities raise concerns about Dane County 9-1-1 dispatch [The Wisconsin State Journal :: ]
[January 26, 2014]

Madison, municipalities raise concerns about Dane County 9-1-1 dispatch [The Wisconsin State Journal :: ]

(Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Jan. 26--Madison officials say they lack confidence in parts of Dane County's 911 center, especially a new computer-aided dispatch system and planned replacement radios, and they are raising the possibility of setting up a city dispatch system.

The county, which gets more than 300,000 emergency calls annually and sends emergency responders to a third of them, acknowledges glitches with the rollout of its new dispatch system last April and delays getting the new radios. But officials say that problems are being addressed and that the system is safe and strong.

Problems cited by Madison officials include delays in dispatching police and fire personnel to emergencies, sending responders to the wrong locations and concerns about the new radio system's capacity and coverage.

"I am not comfortable with the multitude of problems occurring in the 911 Center, nor am I satisfied with the progress by the center or its vendors over the past year to correct them," said Madison Ald. Paul Skidmore, chairman of the 911 Center Board. "I think these continuing problems pose serious concerns for the safety of the residents of the city of Madison." Mayor Paul Soglin said he's in "complete agreement" with Skidmore and has asked the city's public safety agencies to compile a list of concerns to submit to the county.

"When we get accurate data on dispatch times, particularly for the Fire Department, we'll have more to say," Soglin said. "The bottom line on quality is results. We don't want excuses." 911 center Director John Dejung said the operation is "doing well" in terms of consistent, accurate and timely dispatching to protect residents and emergency responders.

But he and other county officials acknowledged problems in some areas and vowed to continue working with municipalities to address them.

"These are (challenges) we'll always face, we've always faced," Dejung said, contending the new dispatch and radio systems are far superior to what was used in the past. "They're not adding up to what I'd call a crisis. These are the type of challenges a 911 center faces all of the time." Part of the challenge is meeting the diverse needs of 85 agencies served by the center, said Josh Wescott, chief of staff for County Executive Joe Parisi.

County officials note the center last spring achieved "Center of Excellence" accreditation from the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch, a designation held by only seven centers in the world. "We're not there operating out of a garage," Dejung said.

But Madison and other officials say problems persist.

"There's a very high probability, by the end of 2014, I will be asking the City Council for approval to do an analysis in joining with neighboring cities and villages and setting up our own dispatch system," Soglin said, acknowledging that such a change would carry significant capital and operational costs.

County Executive Joe Parisi believes the public is best served by a regional center but is open to the city exploring alternatives, Wescott said.

City Council President Chris Schmidt called for a meeting to identify problems and set timelines for addressing them.

"We need to get the city and county leadership together and get on the same page," he said.

Concerns about the new computer-aided dispatch, or CAD, and radio systems are also prompting questions about the center's procedure in answering calls, called priority dispatch.

Life-and-death emergencies are dispatched in short order, after only a few basic questions are asked about the location, presence of weapons and extent of injuries, Dejung said. But for other calls, operators go through a script with more detailed questions to ensure the right responders and equipment are sent to the right place, he said. The protocol was developed by the IAED and endorsed by local responders.

"We're trying to balance quickness with accuracy," Wescott said.

Glitches in dispatch Madison Fire Department and 911 Center data from December showed that 90 percent of center calls were dispatched within 3 minutes and 10 seconds , which compares poorly with the National Fire Protection Association standard of dispatching 90 percent of calls in 1 minute or less, Assistant Chiefs Lance Langer and Laura Laurenzi said.

In April, the county swapped out its antiquated CAD system for a new one made by TriTech Software Systems of San Diego, which serves agencies across the country. The system cost $3.7 million, including a maintenance contract.

The system had lots of new features, including allowing dispatchers to share information on their screens with mobile computers in emergency vehicles, Dejung and others said.

But the rollout, like those in Tulsa, Okla., and some other places, encountered glitches and technical problems.

On April 10, for example, it took five minutes for the center to dispatch Madison police to a call about a person with a gun threatening to shoot. By the time officers arrived, the person was gone, said Lt. Carl Strassburg.

In November, seven months after the new CAD system was implemented, Madison Fire Chief Steven Davis wrote to the county to voice concerns about a host of problems.

In fact, formal complaints to the 911 Center shot up after implementation. In the two years before the rollout, the center received a total of 40 complaints -- including 13 months with none, county records show. But in April 2013, the center got 59 complaints and 38 more the following month.

The number of complaints has since tapered. Complaints from June through December 2013 were only slightly more than before the rollout.

Initial difficulties meshing the CAD system with the Madison Fire Department's records management system, which caused problems in meeting federal privacy rules, are mostly resolved. And progress has been made on resolving a troubling problem in which dispatchers sometimes couldn't locate the Fire Department vehicle closest to an emergency.

Still, concerns remain, including the length of time it takes to dispatch in some cases, dispatchers sending responders to the wrong address or sending some units late to a call, city officials and others said.

On Jan. 16, Verona police were sent out on a call for a disturbance involving someone with a knife to an address that did not exist. Several minutes later, officers were told to disregard the call because the incident was actually in Madison, Verona Police Chief Bernie Coughlin said.

Not all agencies who work with the 911 center complain about the new dispatch system.

"It's light years ahead of the old CAD," said Jeff Hook, chief deputy of the Dane County Sheriff's Department. "Our people are very, very happy with it. With any new system, are there bugs to work out? Absolutely. But there's nothing major standing in our way." Radios long time coming Compounding some officials' concerns are fears that the new radio system will be inadequate. The county was supposed to update its decades-old radio system by the end of 2012 to meet federal deadlines, but that has twice been delayed.

The radio provider, Harris Corp., of Melbourne, Fla., was chosen after a long process in which costs were eventually cut from $30 million to $18 million. Madison, which has a radio system provided by Motorola, preferred the county buy from that company.

The Harris system is supposed to meet new federal bandwidth rules and let emergency responders communicate with other agencies and municipalities.

It should boost the area covered by radios in emergency vehicles or carried by hand from roughly 70 percent of the county to 95 percent.

That's a big improvement over the current system, which has spots in hilly areas largely in the northwest part of the county where vehicle and handheld radios get poor or no reception, Hook said.

However, initial testing showed the new system still will leave about 47 square miles, mostly in the Blue Mounds area, with poor or no reception for handheld radios and may not deliver seamless communications among agencies.

"You don't need gold-plated radios," said Mt. Horeb Fire Chief Craig Brinkmann, one of the most strident critics of the 911 center's management. "You do need to know it's going to work." Laurenzi, of the Madison Fire Department, gives the 911 center credit for trying to address problems others have raised.

"The problem is they have a lot of things on their plate," she said.

___ (c)2014 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.) Visit The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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