DALLAS -- Dallas emergency workers say they're facing a new menace: their computers.
Many believe public safety is at risk because of numerous problems related to the installation of a sophisticated new emergency dispatch system. According to interviews and documents obtained by The Dallas Morning News:
- Firefighters have been sent to wrong addresses or dispatched to emergency scenes when other firefighters are closer.
- Emergency workers have been inadvertently notified that they don't have to go to an emergency call when help is needed.
- Police officers on patrol have received incorrect information on people's criminal records or outstanding arrest warrants.
- Correct information for police about whether a suspect is a wanted criminal sometimes arrives long after a person who was being questioned has been allowed to leave a scene.
"If someone hasn't died yet, then they will," said Jim Crump, a 24-year Dallas Fire-Rescue veteran. "It's a roulette wheel spinning. ... The people of Dallas have a right to know that their system is broke."
There are no known incidents of deaths or serious injuries related to the dispatch problems. But the nearly $6 million system that went online in August appears to be at the center of numerous difficulties.
Many of the new dispatch problems are related to the system's Achilles' heel: a patchwork software link between the city's older hardware, such as the computers in police cars, firetrucks and ambulances, to the newer dispatch system under City Hall.
Human error also may have increased as dispatchers, police and firefighters struggle with what they say is a cumbersome and often slow system.
City officials say they're working on fixes for many of the problems.
"We don't deny that there are issues, because there are," First Assistant City Manager Ryan Evans said. "But we are absolutely committed to addressing all of them."
Public safety concerns
Mr. Crump, the son of a retired Dallas firefighter and brother of a Dallas police officer, said he chose to talk publicly about the problems because of serious public safety concerns.
Documents show that firefighters have reported that the speakers at their stations which are supposed to let them know that they need to respond to an emergency sometimes do not work correctly with the new automated dispatch system.
Sometimes, the speakers at the wrong station go off, causing delayed responses to as many as 20 to 30 emergencies per day, according to fire department documents.
That's a major concern for firefighters such as Mr. Crump, who said what happened Feb. 25 at his station has become common: He says his station received two calls on the emergency-only red phone from someone at fire dispatch letting them know that they had been sent on emergency calls.
The phone calls were needed because the dispatch system had not notified firefighters of the emergencies through the fire station's loudspeakers. Precious minutes had been lost.
Neither call ended up being a serious problem, but Mr. Crump said it's the "what if" that scares him.
But Worris Levine, the city's director of communication and information services, said the dispatch system is not the source of that problem. He said the dispatch system is sending the information to the speaker system, but the speakers aren't activating. "We don't know what that is yet," he said.
He said he did not see it as a public safety concern because dispatchers can simply notify firefighters if they don't respond. "We're talking about seconds," he said.
Although the city says it has teams of workers focused on the dispatch system, many of the problems have continued unabated since the city flipped the switch on the new computer-aided dispatch system at 4:15 a.m. Aug. 22.
The transition got off to a rough start, despite the statements in a City Hall news release soon after the rollout that there had been only a "few minor problems" that didn't affect public safety.
Some are seemingly mundane, with once-simple tasks on in-car computers now taking four or five steps to complete. Officers on patrol struggled to file reports, a problem that, early on, necessitated a massive effort to reprogram nearly every computer.
But writing reports on in-car computers remains "a very slow process," Officer David Baures wrote to police officials. "Is this going to be improved or are we stuck with this slow, inefficient 'new' computer?"
At various times, police have been reduced to writing reports by hand.
Other problems eat up untold man-hours, such as the frequent lag time between when a dispatcher assigns a police officer a call and when the information reaches in-car computers.
Finding out if someone is wanted by police, or driving a stolen car, has became tedious and time-consuming, whereas accessing such information had previously been nearly instantaneous.
Senior Cpl. Keith Huber, a member of the police special investigations unit, wrote to police officials in November that he had requested a records check through his in-car computer to see if a man had any outstanding arrest warrants. The computer initially said the man was not wanted. Minutes later, it notified him that the man actually had multiple outstanding warrants.
It was too late: Officers had let him go.
On Feb. 25, Senior Cpl. Christopher Wagner arrested a man after catching him with crack cocaine and a crack pipe. When he tried to check to see if the man had outstanding warrants, nothing came back telling him one way or another.
Once at the jail, he determined that the man was wanted for a parole violation for burglary.
"He's on parole until 2025," said Cpl. Wagner, who works on a crime response team in some of Dallas' toughest neighborhoods, including those in West Dallas.
"We were out there for 20 to 25 minutes talking to this guy, not knowing who this guy was," he said. "It's real dangerous. Parole violators are some of the most dangerous people we deal with because they don't want to go back to the penitentiary."
The current overall situation confronting officers is "unacceptable at all levels," Deputy Chief Nancy Kirkpatrick, commander of the communications division, said in an interview with The News. "On the major issues that officers have, there has not been a significant improvement."
City officials did not create a team to address the records-check issues until November. Mr. Levine said that many of the records-check problems would be fixed soon.
Mixing old and new
In addition to human error related to the sheer complexity of the new dispatch system, city documents blame some of the problems such as emergency vehicles being improperly dispatched on the way the new system links to older equipment.
When the city decided to replace its 35-year-old homegrown emergency dispatch system with the new automated one made by San Diego-based TriTech, a money-saving decision was made not to buy the mobile software system that allows the computers in emergency vehicles to easily communicate with the dispatch system at City Hall.
Instead of spending millions on new software and hardware for emergency workers, the city opted to build a bridge between old and new for about $640,000.
"It's always difficult; you're bringing in brand-new sophisticated software on top of something that wasn't built to be integrated with this kind of software," said Chris Maloney, president of TriTech. "You're trying to shoehorn it with this great new CAD [computer-aided dispatch] system that wasn't built to work with it."
Experts say building an interface between two software products as Dallas did is a bit like asking a person who speaks only Chinese to speak to a person who speaks only Italian. Someone has to translate, and often something gets lost in translation especially if the translator isn't very good at his job, as seems to be the case with the Dallas computer interface.
"Those pieces, your mobile piece and your [dispatch] software, are pretty much connected at the hip," said Joseph Hindman, a police technology expert who works for the Scottsdale, Ariz., Police Department. "They have to talk to each other."
Mr. Levine, Dallas' top information technology official, said that the interface is working as it should and that the city made the decision to keep the existing in-car software as an "interim decision" to minimize the amount of change for police officers and firefighters.
Dallas officials now are considering buying TriTech's mobile software. Records show that project could cost almost $10 million, including $3.7 million for the software and related expenses and about $5.8 million to replace 510 mobile computers.
Meanwhile, frustrated emergency workers are coping as best as they can. One police officer expressed his frustrations in a Feb. 28 police report: "The CAD system is twice as slow as the old system that it replaced. ... If the people who decided to buy the CAD system had to use it, we might not be having these problems."
GLITCHES IN THE DISPATCH
A sampling of problems related to the installation of Dallas' new emergency dispatch system:
- Emergency vehicles are assigned to calls, but then the call is rescinded by a "ghost clear" glitch as it is en route to the location, leaving the emergency call unanswered until the error is caught and someone is reassigned to the call.
- When officers try to check license plates or look for outstanding arrest warrants, the information is often slow to get to in-car computers.
- Location information for emergency vehicles is sometimes slow to update, causing the system to show emergency vehicles at one location when they're really elsewhere.
- The dispatch system shows that emergency vehicles have arrived at a scene when they have not. Or emergency vehicles arrive, but the system does not show it. Emergency workers say this distorts the reporting of accurate response times.
- Officers can no longer send out divisionwide or citywide messages such as be-on-the-lookout "BOLO" alerts. Such messages now go to police dispatchers who find them only by checking their e-mail, and then they are relayed.
- The in-car interface with the dispatch system is generally cumbersome. One top-ranking city technology official wrote in a memo how she saw an officer get 37 separate messages about a single emergency as he raced with lights on and sirens blaring to help another officer. "To read the comments, he would have had to use keystrokes and fine motor skills," wrote Lynn Chaffin. "Not Good. Not Safe."