Dispatching Glitches

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New computer system installed in October. Maybe not enough testing.

Dispatching glitches vex Pompano firefighters

By LISA J. HURIASH, Sun-Sentinel Web-posted: 1:04 a.m. Jan. 28, 2000

POMPANO BEACH -- When the Fire-Rescue Department lieutenant needed help transporting a dialysis patient to the hospital, he called a dispatcher and waited almost 10 minutes. Then, frustrated by the delay, he called again. The lieutenant learned his first request had never been processed. It was a situation that could have ended in tragedy. Pompano Beach fire officials say that for several months, they have faced potentially life-threatening tie-ups. They get incorrect addresses from dispatchers. Calls are lost. A computer-aided dispatch system causes delays between the time calls are received and the time they are relayed to firefighters. In some cases, they don't show up at all. Fire officials are expected to deliver a progress report today on the problems and what's being done to correct them to the city manager's office. Officials from the Broward Sheriff's Office, which handles dispatch for the city, say the incidents are isolated and will end when dispatchers are fully trained on the new computer system. The Sheriff's Office began fire-rescue dispatch in August, shortly before it took over the city's Police Department. The new computer system was installed in October at a cost to Pompano Beach of $2.7 million. The city is the only one in Broward receiving Sheriff's Office dispatch services for its Fire Department. "My recommendation is that you investigate this problem before something really goes bad and puts a (patient's) life in jeopardy," wrote firefighter Dorthon Dade in a memo to fire-rescue management. Dade complained that firefighters answered a call about a woman who could not move her hands, and dispatchers sent his rescue unit instead of one that was closer. "When (we) arrived on scene, we were told by several witnesses that fire-rescue took too long and that someone took her to the hospital." The examples are numerous, as shown by a 281-page stack of memos and reports obtained by the Sun-Sentinel through a public records request: On Dec. 10 firefighters took 58 minutes to get help to a woman who fell while on a boat and needed medical help on shore. "We didn't know about it," Assistant Fire Chief Harry Small said in an interview. "It took about an hour before help was sent. Then we responded immediately." On Jan. 16 it took the Fire-Rescue Department 31 minutes to respond to a fire alarm at the Muvico movie center on North Federal Highway. Movie officials said the alarm turned out to be false, but the sprinklers caused major water damage. "We are concerned that, God forbid it was a major emergency, we need to be able to take care of our guests properly," said Randi Emerman, director of marketing for the movie center. On Jan. 16 it took the city firefighters 30 minutes to respond to a car accident on West McNab Road. The caller complained to firefighters he had to call 911 three times. On Dec. 16 it took firefighters 14 minutes to respond to a call about chest pains. In a Nov. 1 memo to Small, firefighter John Devoe complained that rescue units closer to emergencies were not being sent out. "For the second time in less than two weeks, I was dispatched to a ... call out of my zone without an engine backup. In this instance to a diabetic emergency, last time to a seizure. ... Dispatch is relying on the computer as a crutch and not paying attention to what is actually happening on the street. The computer is poorly programmed and/or not suited to our needs." A call was made for firefighters to assist a stroke victim in December and "somehow it got lost in the computer," memos showed. Another problem, this one on Dec. 28, occurred when firefighters didn't show up fast enough for a man who reported his truck on fire near 800 N. Federal Highway. After 15 minutes the truck was burned beyond repair. "The property owners were understandably irate at the response and have threatened litigation," Small wrote in a memo. Luis Caraccioli was on his way to repair a seawall when a fire started in the truck's engine. He called his boss on his cellular telephone, and his supervisor called 911. "I was standing on the road, and I was going crazy," he said Thursday. "I don't have nothing to shut the fire off. I moved away from the truck. I thought it was going to explode. My boss was telling me to get the tools out, but I was afraid to get close to the fire." The native of Honduras added, "This only happens in my country; there's not enough fire trucks in Honduras. I was thinking, 'I can't believe I'm in the United States. Oh, my God, where are these guys?'" He said the company truck was destroyed. Maj. Paul Lauria, of the Sheriff's Office communications department, said the problems are being addressed. He said in a city as large as Pompano Beach, which has a high frequency of calls, mistakes can happen. Pompano Beach handles about 16,000 emergency calls each year. "Certainly human error can come into play. However, like in most of the operations, the problems are really few and far between," he said. "One thing you have to remember is that the same personnel in Pompano and the same procedures prior to Aug. 1 are (still) in place now. "But what we've done in trying to be responsive, we've had a site supervisor investigate each of the incidents. On some occasions they found things that could have been done better. However, we've also met with Chief (James) Bentley and Chief (Harry) Small and encouraged the Fire Department to participate in better training for the dispatchers," Lauria said. City Manager C. William Hargett Jr., said operational problems "have not been abnormal for a new system. There have been three or four isolated incidences. The reasons for those delays need to be corrected, and they are." Firefighters are also complaining of wrong addresses being relayed by dispatchers. On Jan. 20, firefighters received a call for a possible explosion behind a restaurant. They were sent to the wrong restaurant. Firefighters also say department telephones don't always connect properly. The printers that print the addresses of 911 calls have been disconnected because the information comes across too slowly, sometimes up to a 1= minutes after it has been sent. So firefighters write down addresses by hand before getting in their trucks. On Dec. 29, Small wrote a memo to Bentley, the fire chief, urging him to assign a fire official to work with dispatchers "due to the alarming increase in the number of lost calls and delayed responses to emergencies. ... Over the last 30 days the situation has deteriorated due to the following situations: computer malfunctions and bugs in the new system, dispatcher error among ... trainees, lack of familiarity with fire department operations, failure to recognize the urgency of fire department calls, failure to follow fire department procedures." Small said five, four-hour training sessions are being planned for February. "We're going to go over Fire Department operations and all that," he said. "It's to improve the system. There's no such thing as a minor event in a 911 call. We're really working on it now." "We've analyzed these cases, and there's probably certain things that could be done better on both sides," Lauria said. "That's what we're trying to resolve. And there could have been procedural adjustments on the Fire Department side. It's a cooperative effort." City commissioners said they were stunned at the level of problems. "Jesus, if this is true, I'm shocked. I'm going to find out what the hell is going on," Commissioner Rex Hardin said. He called back later to say reports "make it sound (like) the whole place is going to hell in a handbasket, and I don't know if that's the case. But I would like to know what caused the problems with these incidents. They may be isolated incidents. If we've got problems that are not being addressed, we need to do that pronto. These are life-threatening instances." Officials said the city usually averages a six-minute response time from the moment 911 calls come in to when firefighters arrive. It usually takes firefighters less than five minutes to travel to a scene. Bentley said the recent problems were not made public because it would "set off panic, and what we've got is a new system. With any system you've got bugs. There's some growing pains you would expect." Fire officials said they were frustrated. "Recently as yesterday complaints are being made," said Frank Ross, president of the firefighters union. "The records indicate there is a problem."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), January 28, 2000

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