How emergency calls are sent from 911 and received by responders
Hundreds of law enforcement officers from Pierce County converged on Tacoma on Nov. 30 to help after police Officer Reginald “Jake” Gutierrez was shot.
For the first time, the county’s year-old computer operation — a $5 million-plus system that helps dispatch the county’s 41 fire and law enforcement departments — was put to the test with a massive law enforcement response.
And it froze.
Officers on the call abandoned the laptop computers they use in their patrol cars to get the addresses of calls and to follow what’s happening at an emergency scene. Instead, they individually radioed dispatchers to communicate and receive information.
Some officers and dispatchers, including one who recently filed a whistleblower complaint about the system, say there are chronic issues with the software.
The union head for three Pierce County fire departments that recently switched to the system says firefighters on his crew give up on their computer about once a day because of trouble with the system.
But overseers of the system say they’re happy with the program and note the problem that caused the Nov. 30 slowdown was fixed last week.
“It really tested our ability to keep up, and we did OK,” South Sound 911 Director Andrew Neiditz, whose roughly 5-year-old agency oversees the computer system, said following the slowdown. “We are pleased.”
Neither supporters nor critics of the system argue the computer slowdown affected the outcome the night Gutierrez was killed.
They say that even had it worked properly, Gutierrez still would have been fatally shot when he responded to a domestic dispute call. And a sheriff’s sniper still would have fatally shot Gutierrez’s killer after a lengthy standoff during which hundreds of officers responded.
Still, some of those unhappy with the system want the county to consider scrapping it for a new one.
“I would like to go shopping,” said Tacoma police Officer Ryan Hovey, who helped configure the system and launch it in his department.
A year in, he said he’s ready to at least see what else is out there.
NEW AGENCY, NEW SYSTEM
South Sound 911 was created in 2011, after voters approved a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax increase, in part to develop the regional dispatch agency.
That meant getting all the county’s first responders and dispatchers on the same computer system. To do that, the agency chose a system from the Intergraph division of Alabama-based Hexagon Geospatial.
South Sound 911 leaders say the system, put into action in October 2015, hadn’t previously handled anything like the situation Nov. 30.
It’s not clear what the threshold is, said Rob Oesch, the agency’s assistant director of information services. “We just know this one hit it,” he said.
Still, Oesch said, from his perspective, the system has worked well for other large responses, such as when 103 units from 10 agencies responded to the fatal shooting of a nurse last February in University Place.
He and other agency leaders said the slowdown was a result of the more than 280 officers who responded Nov. 30 to the police shooting and were added to the call in the computer system.
Software on the officers’ laptop computers shows a running tally of officers who have arrived at a scene, when they leave and other information. Displaying those details for hundreds of officers overwhelmed the system.
“In a few instances, it slowed down to the point where it looked like it might not be working, but at no time did it fail,” said Mark Mears, South Sound 911’s deputy director for law enforcement. “It continued to work. It was just slow.”
The computers of officers assigned to other emergency calls across the county didn’t seem affected beyond 10-to-20-second delays while the officers used the system, Mears said.
To prevent freezes during future mass responses, Hexagon Geospatial had a fix that South Sound 911 deployed Tuesday after testing.
A Hexagon representative referred News Tribune questions about Pierce County’s system to South Sound 911.
STRAINING THE SYSTEM
According to Hovey, the Tacoma police officer, on the night of Nov. 30, officers in the department’s mobile command center — an RV that serves as a headquarters at large police scenes — basically abandoned the computer system after it slowed to a crawl.
He said the system seems to have slowed, to a lesser extent, at a few other large responses during the past year.
“What I’ve seen from this system is that basically, as more people join an event, performance begins to immediately decline,” Hovey said.
For instance, he said, it seemed jerky when he responded about a year ago to a fatal shooting at a Tacoma gas station near Center Street and South Union Avenue.
Officers can radio dispatchers if they can’t input or access information on the computer, such as the location of a scene, who is there and which officers are on the way.
Because of the slowdown Nov. 30, Hovey said, some officers had to radio dispatchers individually to get the address of the Gutierrez shooting.
Doing everything over the radio means extra work for dispatchers, who already are busy sending officers to where they’re needed, Hovey said.
The computer system is supposed to make that job easier, by making it faster to share information once and have it go to everyone.
“It can’t just stop responding to us for periods of time,” Hovey said.
He said a slowdown would be particularly difficult in situations that are rapidly evolving, such as a police chase or when officers are trying to find a suspect on the loose.
In those cases, officers directly involved use the radio to communicate with dispatchers. Others responding to help often rely on the computer for information such as where the suspect is believed to be and where additional officers might be needed.
The premise of South Sound 911, Hovey pointed out, is to make it easier for agencies to work together.
“The impression we were all given was that this system would be able to handle mass incidents and natural disasters,” he said. “They purchased it as a county-wide system. They understood full well the demands that would be placed on it when they bought it.”
Dianna Meek and Durand Dace are South Sound 911 communication supervisors who oversee dispatchers using the new system at the agency’s Tacoma center.
As for the events of Nov. 30, they said, it’s hard to say how the volume of radio requests from officers compared with other hectic nights. During events of that size, dispatchers have nonstop radio traffic no matter what, they noted.
As for how dispatchers feel about the system after using it for more than a year: “It does feel cumbersome to a lot of the dispatchers still,” Meek said.
Some tasks that took one step in the old system take two or three now.
Dace likened dispatchers’ reaction to the new system to how people become frustrated with changes to Facebook, and how many people still refer to the Macy’s store at the Tacoma Mall as the Bon Marche, its former name.
Even a new vending machine for dispatchers took getting used to, he pointed out.
“Ultimately, old habits die hard,” Dace said. “We become experts by repetition.”
On the positive side, he and Meek said, dispatchers in Tacoma like that they can use the new system to see what dispatchers at South Sound 911’s Puyallup center are doing.
And they said it’s been helpful that some agencies have GPS tracking of patrol cars as part of the new system.
For instance, dispatchers could see in September that a Lakewood police officer on his way to work was near the scene of a gas station robbery. The dispatchers told the officer what was happening, and he was able to stop and apprehend a suspect.
Another time, a sheriff’s deputy was hurt in a crash and wasn’t able to talk to dispatchers. Because of the GPS, the dispatchers saw where the deputy was and sent help.
A WHISTLEBLOWER’S COMPLAINTS
Tina Lewis, a dispatcher at South Sound 911’s Puyallup center, filed a whistleblower complaint in December in part because of how often dispatchers’ computer screens freeze at the center.
“I am genuinely worried about officer safety,” she said in the complaint. “… equipment failures have not been addressed.”
On the one hand, she agrees it’s easier to see what other emergency personnel in the county are doing on the new system. For instance, she said, she can pull up calls other agencies are responding to and give officers in her area pertinent information, such as a suspect description another agency has put out.
But it’s cumbersome enough that she thinks it’s time to consider getting a different system.
Lewis told The News Tribune the dispatch side of the computer system at the Puyallup center seems to routinely freeze daily at random times between about 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. It also locks up outside those hours, she said.
That means dispatchers can’t immediately type in information from 911 callers, or what officers call out over the radio, such as where they are and what is happening.
“You have to wait,” she said. “If it’s something you really need, you yell at one of your co-workers and say: ‘Hey, is yours frozen, because if not, you can put it in.’ And sometimes that does work, but for the most part … it’s like: ‘Oh, I’m frozen too.’ ”
She timed one of her recent freezes at more than two minutes, during which her screen was blank.
The same problem occurred in July as she was trying to dispatch officers to a Fife home invasion robbery, she said.
First, because the system froze, the worker taking the call couldn’t type in information, such as what was happening and where. Then, as Lewis was halfway through giving officers the address over the radio, her computer screen went white, she said.
In addition, Lewis said, it takes minutes to sign onto the new system, whereas the old system took seconds. And for dispatchers, seconds matter, she said.
Lewis said she made multiple complaints to superiors, and when that didn’t fix the problem, she notified South South 911 leadership directly with the whistleblower complaint.
South Sound 911 said it’s looking into Lewis’ complaint, and that the agency only recently learned about the 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. trouble.
“If there’s stuff out there that’s not working, we need to hear about it,” Oesch said. “... We want to make it better. We want to fix it.”
Pierce County isn’t the only place that’s had trouble with slowdowns or freezes while dispatching with Intergraph software.
A rocky rollout of an older system for the San Jose Police Department in 2004 caught the attention of a grand jury, which issued a report on the system’s troubles about a year later.
“These problems included the inability of (dispatchers) to perform multiple tasks simultaneously, accurately, and with the same efficiency and speed as they could (before),” the report stated.
The system still has trouble with some big responses, but overall the agency has gotten used to the software and is happy with it, said Joey McDonald, the communications manager for the Police Department.
“It rarely goes down,” she said. “Periodically, we will have systems slow up a bit, particularly for working a very large-scale event.”
The New York City Fire Department planned to use Intergraph, too. But the department scrapped the plans after getting the software and deciding it didn’t meet the department’s needs, Crain’s New York Business reported in October.
Instead, it will take another three years to do its own revamp of its dispatch system.
Meanwhile, the New York Police Department still uses Intergraph and has seen problems.
Following a troubled rollout in May 2013, call-taker screens froze at different points, and in some cases two addresses showed up for calls, The News York Times reported. Nevertheless, the $88 million transition hadn’t slowed response times, the newspaper reported later that year.
South Sound 911’s leaders say every vendor has problems like that.
“There’s a lot of horror stories out there,” Oesch said.
One thing that made Intergraph attractive, he said, is that South Sound can do a lot of its own customization, whereas other companies don’t allow those kinds of changes.
Developers have listened to officers since the 2015 switchover, Oesch said, and have worked to make the system more user friendly, such as reconfiguring which buttons do what, after complaints that it was hard to use.
FIRE DEPARTMENTS’ TURN
South Sound 911 now is going through that feedback process with firefighters, who recently joined police officers on the system.
Most of the county’s fire departments switched over in November, and Tacoma Fire and its associated agencies (Fife, Fircrest and Ruston) plan to switch in April.
When Tacoma Fire joins, about 2,300 emergency personnel in the county will be using Intergraph. About 1,900 use it now.
Russ Karns is president of Pierce County Professional Firefighters Local 726, the union that represents firefighters at Central Pierce Fire & Rescue, South Pierce Fire & Rescue and Graham Fire & Rescue. All have used the system since November.
Karns, a Central Pierce engine driver, said the new system seems designed for dispatchers. Told that it’s added steps to some things dispatchers do, he said: “I sure as heck would like to know who’s happy with the thing then.”
Asked if firefighters have experienced slowdowns with the system, Karns said, “Oh yeah, the CAD’s (computer-aided dispatch) got issues.”
When a call comes in, the computer shows firefighters the address, the kind of call it is and details, such as how many people have been in a car wreck and if any vehicles are on fire.
He said sometimes a firefighter, in a jostling truck, instead of hitting the button that marks the crew as on their way, hits one that clears the call from the computer screen. Then they must ask a dispatcher to resend the information.
Recently, Karns said, a firefighter accidentally hit a button that logged the crew out of the system. They couldn’t figure out the password to get back in and stopped using the computer until they had time to sort it out.
Karns ended up finding the password information with his iPhone.
“No one wants to pull up to a fire and say, ‘Hold on, I need to sit here for a minute and figure this out,’ ” he said.
The department’s old program, called Tiburon, went down about once a month, Karns said.
With the new system, he said, it seems that, once during any 24-hour shift, some issue causes firefighters to stop using the system on a call. Sometimes it’s a freeze-up, and sometimes a firefighter hits the wrong button when the truck takes a sharp turn, he said.
“As soon as it starts to not work properly for whatever reason, we just abandon it,” he said. “We don’t have time to play with it.”
When crews abandon the system, they pull out maps to navigate, Karns said. And they communicate with dispatchers exclusively over the radio.
“You yell at the guy in the back to get a paper map out and start looking up on a paper map where the heck you’re going,” he said.
Information on those maps, such as hydrant locations, isn’t updated as often as the computer maps, he said.
With each slowdown, it’s not clear whether the problem is a software issue, an internet connection problem, user error or some other equipment trouble, Karns said.
“It seems like the busier we are, the more problems we have with it,” he said.
Asked about how a computer slowdown might affect firefighters during a massive incident, such as a natural disaster, Karns said emergency personnel would find a way to cope.
“Regardless of what you throw in front of us, we’re going to make it happen,” he said. “… However, it may slow us down. We may not have the mapping capabilities. When we get there, we may not have all the information that we need.”
South Sound 911 said fire agencies have reported some user errors, and that in some cases maps on the computers have frozen. The mapping slowdowns are being investigated and might be related to cell coverage or the laptops themselves, the agency said.
And as they did with police agencies, developers are taking the feedback and trying to make the system as easy as possible for firefighters to use, West Pierce Fire & Rescue Chief Jim Sharp said.
Sharp chairs the board of police and fire chiefs that oversees South Sound 911.
He said some cosmetic changes are in the works, such as font size, that will make it easier to read maps in the fire rigs.
“With any (computer-aided dispatch) cutover, there’s always those initial bumps you’ve got to work through,” he said. “The benefit for fire is that, by the time it was deployed for us, a lot of bugs had been worked out.”
Sharp hadn’t heard of trouble with the system freezing and said the fire agencies that have moved to the new system seemed happy with how the switchover went.
“With 41 fire and law agencies all on one (computer-aided dispatch) system, that’s a pretty comprehensive way to operate,” he said. “I think they found a good program that seems to be managing and handling that well.”
FROM FLIP PHONE TO IPHONE
Karns pointed out that emergency workers are much more reliant on technology than they were a decade or two ago. When he started as a firefighter in Puyallup in 1992, part of his training was to be able to fill in a blank map of the city by memory.
Now, a goal of the new computer system is to have maps of commercial buildings and apartment complexes, called pre-fire plans, loaded into the system, Sharp said. The maps, which identify potential hazards, such as chemicals, currently are on paper or tablet computers.
Karns compared the new system to an iPhone and the old system to a flip phone.
“The information that’s there and all the stuff that’s compiled on it, it’s almost like it’s too much, and it makes us more prone to also having user errors,” he said. “Sometimes simpler is better.”
Hovey, the Tacoma police officer, thinks a better analogy for the new system is a Blackberry.
“It’s on the same track as a smartphone with a lot of modern features, but unfortunately it was the design that killed the Blackberry, and I think it’s the design that’s killing this thing,” he said.
He’s not sure if a dispatch system exists that he’d compare to an iPhone, but he said one should, and that if one doesn’t, he’s willing to help build it.
“There’s no reason in this day and age to not have something like that,” he said.
Tacoma City Councilman Joe Lonergan, who chairs the board of elected officials that oversees South Sound 911, said getting a new system isn’t on the table.
“And I don’t know why it would be,” he said. “This is a system that’s in use in a lot of places.”
The time and money the county has invested in Intergraph amounts to:
▪ $5 million for the system, which wasn’t the most or least expensive one South Sound 911 considered as part of a selection process that started in 2011.
▪ More than 950 hours South Sound 911 developers have spent customizing the system.
▪ An annual maintenance and licensing cost that sits at more than $645,000.
Lonergan said he’s comfortable Intergraph is meeting the county’s needs and that the company has been responsive to South Sound 911.
“I would say that most people would contend that your smartphone is a more useful tool than your flip phone was, but it still takes getting used to,” he said.
Firefighter Karns said he’d like a different system if it’s financially possible, but he recognizes that spending more money on equipment means less to spend putting emergency personnel on the street.
And he wasn’t prepared to call the system’s troubles public safety issues.
But the stakes are high, he noted.
“I can tell you, if that thing went down on the guys during the Gutierrez thing, and they were trying to use it for anything, I mean anything, the frustration that they must have felt is sickening,” he said. “You’re going to a situation like that, you want everything to work, and you want everything to work right.”
He likened that to how he would feel if a firefighter were trapped or perished in the line of duty.
“I’ve got to tell you,” he said, “if a piece of equipment failed, I would be beyond upset.”