Big headaches in Big D
Last August, when Dallas officials flipped the switch on the city’s brand-new computer-aided dispatch system, they probably didn’t imagine that the $6.5 million they had just spent would end up being little more than a down payment. But in late April, after months of frustrating — and, many police and fire personnel say, dangerous — headaches, the city council learned that at least another year — and another $14 million — will be needed for the system to work the way it was intended.
The implementation problems have been the stuff of public safety nightmares: police and firefighters sent to the wrong addresses, crews directed to miles-away incidents when other crews were closer, and emergency calls canceled when help still was needed. In at least one instance, police released a wanted suspect when information on his outstanding warrant was too slow in coming.
Although there have been no known deaths or serious injuries related to the dispatch problems, some public safety experts say that the trouble in Dallas should act as an object lesson for those who may be looking to upgrade to CAD systems in the future. That lesson? Never underestimate how complex — and expensive — such an upgrade may become.
Controversy over the new system — played out in detail in the local press — has featured differing accounts of what went wrong, but this much is clear: When Dallas decided to replace its 35-year-old “home-brewed” dispatch system with an automated solution from San Diego-based TriTech, officials opted not to spend additional millions on a matching system that would let emergency vehicles to communicate easily with the dispatch center. Instead, city personnel decided to build their own bridge between the legacy in-vehicle system and the new CAD system for a cost that originally was calculated to be about $650,000.
The new CAD system’s shortcomings became obvious almost as soon as it went online. Within days, the computerized police report-taking system crashed as connections between in-car computers and the dispatch center became hopelessly overloaded. Emergency vehicles were assigned to calls that became mysteriously “cleared” en route, leaving the call unanswered until the error was discovered and another unit could be assigned. Emergency vehicle location information was sometimes slow to update or flat-out incorrect, causing the system to show vehicles at the wrong locations, including emergency scenes at which they had not yet arrived. Officers found themselves unable to transmit citywide “be-on-the-lookout” messages, which instead had to be e-mailed to police dispatchers and then relayed. Finally, officers’ in-car use of the system was difficult: The Dallas Morning News quoted a memo from one city technology official who saw an officer receive 37 separate messages about a single emergency as he raced, with full lights and sirens, to the aid of another officer.
In another incident described by the newspaper, an officer arrested a man after catching him with crack cocaine and a pipe. Checking to see if the man had outstanding warrants, the officer received no response. It was not until the officer had taken the suspect to jail that he learned the man was wanted for a violation of his parole — parole he was on until 2025. The officer said that he had spent nearly 30 minutes talking to the man without knowing about his criminal history or incarceration.
In the months that followed, officials said most of those early glitches were resolved, but that didn’t stop the complaints from police and firefighters, many of whom took the unusual step of publicly voicing their complaints. As late as April, first responders were sometimes still forced to hand-write reports or phone in their locations to the dispatch center. Firefighters also reported that the speakers in their stations that announce emergencies sometimes did not work with the new system, delaying their responses to as many as 20 to 30 emergencies per day.
Worris Levine, the city’s director of communication and information services, said the dispatch system was not the cause of many of the problems detailed in firefighter and officer complaints. Instead, he attributed much of the trouble to problems inherent in personnel learning the ins and outs of any new system, as well as plain old technician error in setting it up.
“There were problems with the way some people were interacting with the new system, and some problems with the way the new and old systems were interacting,” Levine said. He added that some problems are to be expected as workers get used to new and more complicated ways of doing their jobs, and he said that city officials initially chose to bridge the old and new systems not just based on cost but also in the hopes of minimizing the amount of change that officers and other workers would have to deal with at once.
Levine’s explanation was not exactly music to emergency personnel ears; first responders interviewed by MRT said they felt that the city had blamed them for being unable to operate the new system, when in fact the system itself often was inoperable. Public comments from many police and firefighters expressed frustration that problems being attributed to operator error or training issues actually were systemic failings of the software and the patch that city workers had constructed to try to make it work.
City officials now have reversed course and decided to buy TriTech’s mobile software. The city plans to test that software in the city’s police and fire vehicles, and if that pilot project goes well, officials expect to begin installing the new mobile software in vehicles this summer.
Dave Neumann, a city councilman, said that of the more than $14 million needed to resolve the problems, about $6.2 million already had been budgeted. The total cost will include about $5.5 million for the TriTech mobile software and about $700,000 to address the problems with the city’s fire station speakers.
Although the city’s technology staff has assured that the planned fixes will take care of the problems still encountered by users, Neumann said the amount of additional money required bothers him.
“I’m wondering how much more money we’re going to have to pour into it,” he said. “This problem started because people thought we could save money on one part of the system, and [those efforts] ended up costing us more.”
Dallas officials have been mostly mum about the specific technical details of what went wrong and how the patch they initially devised to bridge the new and old systems failed to meet expectations. But emergency communications experts say that trying to integrate new and old systems is tricky business — even in the best of circumstances, it’s akin to two people who speak completely different languages trying to communicate. Another potential problem is trying to force the large amounts of information carried by today’s systems through the smaller pipes used by yesterday’s systems.
What does seem clear is that there was nothing special or unique about the Dallas situation, and that the problems officials there found as they tried to merge old and new equipment and software may await anyone trying to do something similar — especially if corners are cut or pennies pinched. When it comes to anything like a massive upgrade of a city’s emergency dispatch system, the most expensive option may turn out to be, in the long run, the most cost-effective.
“This stuff is always difficult,” said Chris Maloney, president of TriTech. “You’re trying to put state-of-the-art software over the top of something that wasn’t built for it. It really is like trying to shoehorn a whole new kind of system into something that wasn’t made to [accommodate] it.”
Maloney refused to elaborate on the details of what went wrong with the way the system was initially implemented in Dallas, but he expressed confidence that adding the “other half” of his company’s solution would resolve the problem to everyone’s satisfaction.
“We have a whole system that works together and that emergency workers can have confidence in,” Maloney said. “I’m sure that after the test run, when they start installing the system in their vehicles, they’ll be very happy.”