Dallas first responders struggle with new dispatch system

Emergency workers continue to resort to hand-written reports or phoning in their locations; struggle lies ith the way on-board computers connect to the dispatch software.

By Tanya Eiserer
The Dallas Morning News
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Keeping critical police communications fast, clear & protected

DALLAS, Tex. — A $6.5 million dispatch system is not always communicating properly with computers in Dallas police and fire vehicles, making it sometimes difficult for officials to track the locations of emergency workers.

The computer-aided dispatch system went online last week to replace a 30-year-old mainframe. The software is used for sending emergency workers where they are needed, monitoring their locations, and processing reports filled out by police officers on their in-car computers.

Officials say that the dispatch system itself has worked the way it was intended -- but emergency workers have struggled with the way on-board computers connect to the dispatch software.

Within hours of the new system going live last Wednesday, the computerized report-taking system used by police officers crashed because connections between software in in-car computers and the dispatch system became overloaded.

Police dispatchers became inundated as they struggled to get used to the new system and to help police in the field. Officers were forced to write reports by hand.

Officials have since been hurriedly installing upgrades on squad car computers that should fix that problem. Officials say most of the early glitches have been resolved, but police and firefighters are increasingly frustrated.

Sometimes the dispatch system doesn't show the current location of emergency vehicles and personnel, which means that they have to radio in their locations, said Dallas Fire-Rescue Deputy Chief Joseph Kay, who heads the emergency medical services division.

Police officers have also had trouble logging in to their computers and have at times been unable to check for criminal backgrounds of suspects.

There have been no reports of people being endangered by slow emergency response times or emergency workers being endangered because their supervisors don't immediately know exactly where they are. But the problems have lead to situations where emergency workers continue to resort to hand-written reports or phoning in their locations.

"We continue to have issues with reports," Police Deputy Chief Nancy Kirkpatrick, who oversees the communications division. "Officers are frustrated at times and we're continuing to work with them."

While acknowledging problems, officials also say it is difficult to tell how much of the frustration among the ranks is from emergency workers becoming accustomed to a new and more complex way of doing business, or from the technical problems with the system itself.

Police, for example, are trying to learn a whole set of designations to identify squad cars when they're on their radios.

"The biggest thing is it's just frustrating to the guys, most of whom aren't real computer savvy," Chief Kay said. He said additional training is being provided to fire department personnel.

Dallas Fire-Rescue officials have gone so far as to warn station personnel not to publicly discuss the new system.

Copyright 2007 The Dallas Morning News

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