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Fire Department Grapples with Dispatch System Glitch Source: The Kansas City Star

Publication date: 2000-07-18

The computer system that determines which Kansas City fire trucks to send on 911 calls broke down Monday for about 5 1/2 hours. By about 7 p.m., most of the system was back online, with just a few aspects of it requiring manual updating by dispatchers. Those functions will remain unusable until at least today, said Deputy Chief John Germann, who supervises the communications unit.

Response times Monday were not affected by the breakdown, officials said. But the potential for complications concerned Germann.

"We were just fortunate," Germann said Monday. "It's an unbelievably unacceptable situation for an agency like the Fire Department that is involved with saving people's lives."

The system was designed in the early 1990s by two former city employees and has a history of problems, officials said. Complicating matters, the system's creators left little documentation that current employees can use to track and fix problems.

"It's been a problem for three or four years," Germann said. "We can't seem to get anyone to do anything about it."

The computer-aided dispatch system, also known as CAD, was purposefully shut down by city employees about 1:20 p.m. for routine maintenance. The shutdown was supposed to last about 10 to 15 minutes, Germann said.

But when the city employees tried to bring the system back online, it wouldn't cooperate. Fire dispatchers looked at empty computer screens for the rest of the day, picking which trucks to send on calls from memory and logging the calls on scraps of paper.

Fire trucks were also ordered to stay in their stations so dispatchers would know their whereabouts.

After the system went back online, a few aspects of it remained buggy. Dispatchers had to manually update the screens for calls on queue, unit status, and last 30 calls.

"Each time dispatchers go to do anything to process a call, they have to manually refresh those screens on their consoles, and then call out to the others to do the same," Germann said.

Late Monday, programmers told Germann they would be unable to fix those functions until today at the earliest.

The system causes dispatchers minor problems daily, Germann said. But breakdowns like the one Monday occur with less frequency, he added.

The city is in the process of hiring a consultant who will recommend ways to upgrade the Fire Department's CAD system, as well ones with the Police Department and Metropolitan Ambulance Services Trust.

To reach Christine Vendel, police reporter, call (816) 234-4438 or send e-mail to

-- (, July 18, 2000

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