Some concerned with new South Sound 911 system; officials say it has important features

Puyallup police officer Micah Wilson uses the new Intergraph computer aided dispatching system.
Puyallup police officer Micah Wilson uses the new Intergraph computer aided dispatching system. lwong@thenewstribune.com

The answer to how Pierce County’s new 911 system is working out depends on who’s asked.

Some emergency dispatchers and law enforcement officers say the new computer system — which, according to South Sound 911, is supposed to make it easier for agencies to work together — is in some cases making their jobs harder.

Administrators of South Sound 911 say the more than $5 million upgrade has important new features and that users need to give it time.

“Part of what we need to do is be open-minded about new ways of doing things,” agency director Andrew Neiditz said. “What we’ve come from was pretty unacceptable.”

South Sound 911 — which dispatches for the 41 fire and law enforcement agencies in the county — rolled out its new computer-aided dispatch system in October for law enforcement. Fire agencies are expected to get it in the spring.

There will be more than 2,500 public safety employees using the new system after March, said Rob Oesch, South Sound 911’s assistant director for information services.

Part of why fire agencies aren’t switching until March is that South Sound 911 needed more time to configure the dispatch system to work for firefighters and fire dispatchers.

“Frankly, we’re not ready,” Oesch said. “We needed to buy some more time to make sure their core functionality was in place.”

Like Tiburon, the old system many agencies used, the new one (called Intergraph) lets a dispatcher in an office send to the computer in an officer’s patrol car information about where the officer should respond and other details about the emergency call.

After using Intergraph for about two months, the chief complaints from emergency personnel are that the new system is not user-friendly, is time-consuming and seems as though it were built by someone who hasn’t done the job of a patrol officer or dispatcher.

Tacoma police Officer Angela Hayes said the new system has gotten better, but she still prefers the old system.

“We’re pretty much teaching each other, trying to figure out the best way to go about it,” she said.

On the old system, officers could attach themselves to a call with a few keyboard strokes before heading to help another officer. Now, it takes her a series of clicks to find a call, bring it up and then attach herself.

“It was like it was built by people who don’t do the job and definitely aren’t out on the road,” Hayes said.

As an example, she cited a recent Washington State Patrol pursuit. She heard about the chase on the radio, and turned on her patrol car’s emergency lights and sirens and went to help.

When she heard the suspect was in custody, she sent dispatchers a message, asking to be added to the call to document what she had been doing. They told her the call record had already been closed, and she couldn’t be added.

In the old system, “I would have just added myself,” she said.

She likes that the touch screen on her computer works, and said she’s doing her best to stay positive.

“Everyone has seen its potential, I think,” Hayes said. “But it’s just so cumbersome for us to use out here. We’re hoping that they can get this system to be a little more simple.”

Puyallup police Officer Micah Wilson was one of the first responders who helped configure the new system and teach it to others in his department.

A top request from officers in the field: “I want one button to go through my messages.”

Before, officers could hold down one key and in seconds go through many messages — notes from other officers, dispatchers and the results of running a license plate, for instance.

Now, when an officer logs in, it takes a series of clicks to read messages, which arrive in reverse chronological order.

“We’ve gone from simple and sleek with Tiburon to more cumbersome,” Wilson said.

He said he knows South Sound 911 and its developers are working hard on the new system.

“I do believe that this product will one day meet our needs,” he said. “I don’t know when that day is. I just know there’s a lot of work to do.”

Director Neiditz said that after talking to other agencies that have switched systems, he expected worse when local agencies started using Intergraph.

“From the war stories I had heard, I thought the transition would be a lot more difficult than it’s been,” he said. “I anticipated we’d have more push-back than we did. (computer-aided dispatch) transitions by their nature are not very easy.”

The switch was needed to get all the agencies on one system. Before, different departments had different dispatch programs.

For example, a 911 caller would reach a police dispatcher and, if the caller had a medical emergency, would be transferred to a fire dispatcher. That meant the caller might have to repeat information about the emergency, wasting potentially critical time.

Having everyone on the same system after fire departments switch over means the information from the initial call should be in the fire dispatcher’s computer.

“You’re not starting from scratch,” said Oesch, the agency’s assistant director for information services.

South Sound 911 call taker Kim Barnard, who has worked in the profession for 25 years, said the new system makes it easier to see what other call takers and dispatchers have done.

“I like it,” she said. “It’s just taking people time to get used to it.”

Others aren’t sure about that.

Barbara Williamson, who has dispatched in Puyallup for 14 years, remembers getting Puyallup’s old dispatch system in 2004, and acknowledges using any new system is difficult.

But Intergraph is particularly cumbersome, she said, and even if they fix everything in the new system, “It will never be as fast as what we had before.”

“It has made our job much more difficult,” she said. “There are far too many steps. It was not designed for dispatchers to be able to do what we do.”

Williamson said some dispatchers have had their computer stations freeze and that there have been cases of the system sending calls to the wrong place.

“Things happen that we feel truly are officer safety issues,” she said. “It’s so much slower. When you have multiple officers asking you for things, you can’t keep up with them.”

Neiditz said South Sound 911 wouldn’t have gone live with the new system if it had had safety problems. And Oesch said the agency is working through lists of requests for changes to better meet the needs of dispatchers and officers.

He said the system as a whole is stable. Some dispatch computers have needed to be rebooted, he said, sometimes because they weren’t configured properly, or because of other problems the vendor has either already fixed or is working on.

Oesch knew of only one case where a call was transferred to the wrong dispatch center, which he said was done by a neighboring county, and didn’t involve the new system.

“I think they’re going to get just as fast, and I think they’re going to get accustomed to a lot of the new features they didn’t have before,” Oesch said.

One improvement, he said, is that officers now can pull up driver’s license photos. Before, a dispatcher had to send them via email.

Oesch gave this recent example: A woman reported a stolen purse, but the officer couldn’t check her ID because it was inside the missing bag. The officer searched for the woman in the new system and confirmed who she was.

Another feature South Sound 911 underscores as an improvement is that officers now can see what other agencies are doing, which helps in incidents to which multiple departments respond.

A big update in the works for law enforcement is configuring a dashboard screen that will put more of the computer features officers use in one place, he said.

Local officials don’t have a timeline or quote from Intergraph as to what that will cost or when it will be ready, Oesch said.

Some changes to the system can be done by South Sound 911 developers, but big ones have to be done by the vendor, Georgia-based Hexagon Geospatial. The company did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Asked whether South Sound 911 is committed to making changes to the system, including the ones that come with a cost, Neiditz said: “We are very much committed to taking the steps necessary to make sure that every police and fire agency has confidence in what we’re doing.”

When it came time to upgrade the county’s 911 operation, getting all the county’s first responders on the same dispatch system was no small task. Police and firefighters have different needs in a system, and South Sound 911 had to find one that worked for everybody.

Meanwhile, part of the old system had been crashing.

After putting out a request for bids, Sound Sound 911 officials whittled the list to four contenders, who came and gave presentations to about 40 to 50 people in 2012.

In the end, the Intergraph system — which was neither the most or least expensive option, Oesch said — won out.

Part of why the system was attractive was that agencies can do a lot of the customization on their own. With other companies: “We may have been stuck with what we got,” Oesch said.

In addition to the more than $5 million cost of switching systems, costs for licensing and maintenance will be between $600,000 and $650,000 a year, South Sound 911 estimates.

Oesch said local officials were encouraged that Intergraph is used in a city as large as New York. Users there had concerns similar to those raised in Pierce County, but the new operation didn’t substantially slow emergency response times, The New York Times reported in 2013.

Before choosing Intergraph, South Sound 911 did not send anyone to do field tests at other agencies using the system because of the large number of dispatchers, patrol officers, firefighters and others locally who needed to learn about the competing systems, Oesch said.

It was easier and cheaper to have vendors travel to Pierce County and present their systems to everyone in one room, he said.

The number of people needing to see the presentations is the result of the size of South Sound 911’s undertaking, which Neiditz pointed out.

“I don’t know of another agency in this part of the country that’s supporting 41 police and fire departments,” he said.

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268, @amkrell