Michigan: State of emergency for 911

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"Chiefs said the constant problems with getting the system up and running confirms their earlier concerns. Criticism flared again when problems with the system occurred after software was installed "on the fly" in December to make the system Y2K compliant, Parks said. "

State of emergency for 911

Sunday, February 13, 2000 By James L. Smith and Edward L. Ronders JOURNAL STAFF WRITERS

Depending on the location of a fire in Forest Township, Fire Chief David Upthegrove sometimes scouts out the surrounding area, then parks a fire truck on top of the closest hill.

From that vantage point, Upthegrove said he can radio firefighters messages that otherwise would be lost because of poor reception.

In some cases, the weak radio signals fail to trip pagers for his on-call firefighters so they have to be alerted to emergencies the old-fashioned way: by telephone.

Fixing the reception problem is among several headaches facing the Genesee County 911 Consortium Commission. Upthegrove is one of the growing number of police and fire chiefs in Genesee County frustrated by what they say is a poor emergency dispatch system.

They said the collection of radios, computers and dispatching equipment purchased just three years ago already was obsolete by the time it was installed in late 1998.

The system, financed primarily by member contributions and grants, cost $5.7 million. Many chiefs say the real losers are taxpayers, who approved a $1.50 monthly per-phone surcharge in 1992 to pay for the 911 operation.

The surcharge is expected to raise $2.7 million this year. But the chiefs said taxpayers are being shortchanged by a system that uses obsolete equipment that is plagued with problems.

At least one chief has called the 911 computers "junk."

No one can cite an example in which poor 911 communications has led to a death or injury, but many chiefs are concerned the potential for disaster is present.

"We're not happy with the system the way it is now," said Burton Police Chief John Benthall. "From the beginning, it seems every day you have a different problem, and it never seems to get worked out so it works correctly every time."

Many departments cite problems:

Mundy Township Police Chief David Guigear said he has had numerous complaints from his officers about mobile computers installed in police cars not working during traffic stops.

In Burton, police officers have been frustrated when modems on their car computers have not worked, leaving them in the dark as to whether a motorist they stopped is dangerous or has warrants, Benthall said.

A universal police complaint is that the black and white computer screens are difficult to read at night and nearly impossible to read in direct sunlight.

"The whole thing is as frustrating as it could possibly be," said Flint Township Supervisor Sally Shaheen Joseph, a former consortium representative. "It's the same question for years, and when I hear what I hear from the chiefs, there's an awful lot of dissension in the ranks, and I can't believe it is all off the wall."

Lloyd Fayling, director of the county 911 system, agrees there are problems, but he attributed them more to the workings of government than with the equipment. For one thing, he said, government agencies implement change slowly.

"The problem with technology is that after you go through all the (required) government stuff, the technology is old," he said.

The county is looking to upgrade to more powerful, 800-megahertz radios, but that may not happen for at least two years. Meanwhile, officials have to figure out how to cover the $8-million cost.

Davison Township Supervisor Donald L. Parks, head of the consortium board, noted that police chiefs chose the in-car computers that eventually were bought.

Fayling also said the center's operation is hampered by too many chiefs with too many different ideas about how the facility should be run. Others agree with him, saying consortium members have failed to work together.

"Our communication system doesn't communicate," said Fenton Township Supervisor Carl Gabrielson, who also is consortium executive board member, at a recent 911 meeting. "Our communication stinks."

Added one fire chief: "Cooler heads could prevail, if there was a cooler head around. Everyone is angry and frustrated." Bumpy history

The 911 center has had a bumpy history, especially in the past five years.

State police had handled dispatching duties for the county since 1973, and having a central dispatching location was an innovative idea designed to save time and money by allowing departments to share dispatchers and building space.

The consortium was formed in 1981, when nearly all police departments and many fire departments were using central dispatch. Each participating city and township paid a small amount toward defraying some of the state's expenses.

The city of Flint, deciding it could give its residents better service with an independent dispatch center, left in May 1996, taking with it the $1.1 million raised by the telephone surcharge in Flint.

The center lost 30 percent of its funding with Flint's departure, but the city was responsible for about 60 percent of the calls, significantly reducing the center's workload.

Then the state police pulled out of the center's operation in the fall of 1996.

Without its biggest partners, the consortium was left scrambling to get new equipment and move into space the state police made for the operation at its new post at Corunna and Linden roads.

The consortium at first planned to move into the center by early 1996, but various problems delayed the move to November 1998.

Flint's decision to leave stalled the project by six months because equipment specifications and contracts had to be redone, Fayling said.

As the center began its transition from state police control to an independent agency, complaints were mounting about the choice of equipment.

Fire and police chiefs nearly universally blame the choice of Ericsson Inc. of Virginia, the low bidder for the $5.7-million system, for most of the problems.

Longtime users of Motorola radio equipment, the chiefs unsuccessfully lobbied to buy new equipment from that company.

Some of the chiefs later learned Ericsson was installing a similar system in Kansas City, Mo., that was experiencing many of the same problems as Genesee County.

"(Chiefs) have a strong allegiance to Motorola, and I recognize that, but we have to do business with the lowest responsible bidder," Parks said.

While the consortium has become aware of the Kansas City situation, chiefs fail to mention that other police agencies have had trouble with Motorola systems, Parks said.

A group of fire and police chiefs, at the suggestion of consortium officials, traveled to Grand Rapids to see a system using the same computers and equipment eventually purchased here.

"While at Grand Rapids, the people there asked us why we were looking at a system they were getting rid of," said one chief.

Chiefs also question the price paid for some of the equipment. The original price tag of the 150 Ericsson-supplied car computers was $7,700, officials said.

The computers were purchased under a $600,000 federal grant and a 20 percent matching payment by cities and townships, Parks said.

Even the next generation of 133-mhz computers cost $6,200, well above the prices of $4,000 or less for higher-speed computers at area retail stores, said Guigear.

Flint, which is preparing to install 51 in-car computers next month, purchased the 133-mhz units for $346,000, or about $6,700 apiece, said Flint police Lt. Robert Clark. The money, which is part of a $1.2-million federal grant, includes the computer, printer, installation and maintenance.

The decision to choose Ericsson was simply based on the lower bid, Fayling said, and the consortium's belief that it met Genesee County's needs.

But problems with two vendors that provided the software and the the modems led to difficulties in getting the system up and running, Fayling said.

"I do know that from being on the inside here that Ericsson has put an awful lot of effort into this to make it work," Fayling said.

So far the company has paid $180,000 in late penalties and spent an additional $500,000 to fix modems and software, Parks said.

Chiefs said the constant problems with getting the system up and running confirms their earlier concerns. Criticism flared again when problems with the system occurred after software was installed "on the fly" in December to make the system Y2K compliant, Parks said.

The computers had so many glitches then that some fire chiefs, including Flint Township's Greg Wright, pulled the plug on them and referred to them as "junk."

At last week's consortium meeting, Wright backed off criticisms he wrote in a letter and said there is blame to be shared by everyone for the problems.

Fayling said he warned chiefs that the Y2K fix was likely to cause temporary problems. But he said he understands the frustrations when computers malfunction.

Communication woes

Gaines Township Fire Chief William L. Miller said fire chiefs suffer from a credibility problem because they have not always spoken with one voice.

In addition, some of their complaints to Parks and Fayling have not been sent on to the consortium board, Miller said.

Burton Fire Chief Doug Halstead said he believes consortium leaders deny the scope of the problems and play down the extent of the complaints.

"There are so many unhappy people," Halstead said. "It is tremendously difficult to make this thing work. I truly don't know what the answer is, but I'm willing to work with the people."

Still, nearly all the chiefs credit dispatchers and computer maintenance employees for doing the best they can to keep the system limping along. John Newcomer, assistant chief of the Montrose Fire Department, said the center had been quick to fix the problems it had with their computer.

"Things are getting better," Newcomer said.

Gabrielson said more work needs to be done.

"It's going to get better, but you can't run a 911 system with no communications," he said. "There is fault on both sides. In my opinion, let's get these things resolved. It's important to the people on the street.

"We don't need the community at risk and doubts about what we are doing."



-- Carl Jenkins (Somewherepress@aol.com), February 13, 2000

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