Emergency Calls Dropped, Delayed by New Dispatch System, Emails Indicate


Tulsa, Oklahoma's new computerized dispatch system -- touted as making communication easier for firefighters -- is dropping some medical and fire calls, delaying others and sending some to the wrong stations, possibly risking citizen and firefighter safety, emails obtained by the Tulsa World indicate.

The computer-aided dispatch -- or CAD -- system installed in August at a total cost of $2 million apparently does not communicate smoothly with the city's existing "Zetron" fire dispatch system, resulting in call errors and delaying responses in some cases, emails state.

The city has established a working group to address problems with the system, manufactured by TriTech Software Systems, but dropped calls and related issues continue.

In one case, the system failed to dispatch the nearest available first responders to a cardiac arrest call in east Tulsa, records show.

Firefighters at the nearest station monitoring radio traffic went to the call Saturday morning but arrived to find the person dead. Additional details were not available due to privacy concerns, and whether the person could have been saved if firefighters had been properly dispatched is unclear.

Chad Miller, president of the Tulsa International Association of Fire Fighters Local 176, said the technical problems are "absolutely" a public safety issue.

"To spend $2 million and still having firefighters write down stuff with pen and paper when their attention should be focused on something else -- it's becoming a safety concern."

However, Deputy Fire Chief Scott Clark said Tulsans' safety is not at risk. Clark said the city has three backup systems in case the new system fails to dispatch calls properly, and he said the Fire Department's portion of the dispatch system shared by the Tulsa Police Department cost only $390,000.

"It's very clear that protection of the citizens is at the same level," he said. "We have four redundancies in place. A dropped call does not mean a delayed call."

In an Oct. 24 email, Clark referred to the issue as "incident delay problems."

Clark said the city's 911 center is gathering data on the dispatch errors, but he did not have information on how many have occurred.

Officials at TriTech, with corporate offices in San Diego, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Firefighters have been ordered since Dec. 13 to conduct "standing 24 watch" at fire stations, in which a firefighter monitors radio traffic around the clock to ensure that calls aren't missed, records show.

The new TriTech CAD system is designed to take information about fire and medical calls and transmit it to the proper fire station through the city's 911 dispatch center.

Using the existing Zetron system, each fire call -- known as a "drop" -- triggers the station's main door to open and lights to come on and also creates a printout of the call information at the station. The information is also available to firefighters on station computers and laptops in fire trucks, but some stations have had problems getting wireless signals, Miller said.

Tulsa Police Department officials said they are not aware of any problems their officers have experienced due to the dispatch issues. The department does not use the Zetron system in its dispatch process.

Emails from Tulsa firefighters to the working group say the CAD system has sent calls to the wrong fire stations when firefighters were available nearby. It has also duplicated calls and delayed them, resulting in some fire stations standing open after firefighters dispatched themselves to calls, the emails state.

Clark disputed that the wrong stations are receiving calls or that calls have been delayed. He said that in some cases, the new system is just changing old assignment patterns to increase efficiency.

When fire calls fail to get through, dispatchers have been using an old 800 MHz radio system to transmit the information, records show.

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Miller said that system is slower and requires dispatchers to manually input most information.

Firefighters respond first on medical calls and normally arrive to provide medical care well before EMSA paramedics do.

The Emergency Medical Services Authority is a government agency that oversees a contractor providing ambulance service to Tulsa, Oklahoma City and surrounding cities. EMSA recently increased response times under its new contract, which began Nov. 1 with American Medical Response.

EMSA purchased the TriTech CAD system, which it also uses, for the city about two years ago to improve communication between the agency and the Tulsa Fire Department. The system sat idle at the city for more than a year because of issues with the vendor who was supposed to install it, the World has reported.

The city began using the TriTech system to dispatch fire calls in August, with one city official calling it "one of the Cadillacs of CAD systems."

However within at least two months, city officials realized that the new system was not working properly with the Zetron system, records show.

An Oct. 24 email from Clark states that a group of administrators had been established to gather information on several technical issues, including "CAD/incident delay problems."

On Dec. 19, Clark sent an email saying city officials were meeting with representatives from TriTech and Zetron.

"To explain what is currently happening: when a full assignment is sent out or there are multiple stills sent out the system overloads and arbitrary drops are hung up or delayed. It isn't predictable in other words it's not always the last assigned or most recent," Clark's email states.

"Eventually, sometimes three minutes later, the original drop will hit which is sometimes after you have left the station."

When such calls occur, Miller said, "the doors are standing wide open; the station is totally unsecured."

On Dec. 26, Fire Communications Officer Gerry Tarver asked firefighters to immediately begin documenting details of problems, including date, time and address of the call.

"Drop issues we want to query are delayed, phantom, double drops or no drops at all," Tarver's email states.

In an email sent to the working group Dec. 30, a firefighter says his engine company was dispatched to a house fire at 1914 N. Boston Ave. that day.

"The CAD system gave the dispatcher an erroneous assignment. ... It was completely wrong," the firefighter's email states.

"We no longer have any confidence in this CAD system so we take extra time before leaving our station to get the complete address ... and ignore the units assigned," the email states. "Our response was adequate this time, but would be quicker if the assignments were accurate, like the previous system was."

In an email to Miller the same day, a firefighter warns that call errors from the TriTech system pose a serious safety risk.

"With delayed drop notification, potential fires will have time to grow and extend, resulting in companies assigned to fire attack placing themselves in fire conditions at or near flash over," states the firefighter, also a member of the union.

"This scenario not only places firefighters at an increased risk but also causes more property damage and increases the potential loss of life in a rescue situation."

Clark said the problems, while not posing a safety hazard, have been difficult to address. He said multiple information technology project managers have compounded the issue.

"I want it fixed. I want it to work flawlessly," he said.

In an email Dec. 31, Tarver assures Fire Department employees: "Chief (Ray) Driskell, along with the Deputy Chiefs and myself have placed this issue with the highest priority of getting resolved. TriTech has given us their word that they are making this their highest priority as well."

Days later, an email from a firefighter outlined what he believed were dispatch errors on the cardiac arrest call Saturday in the 4800 block of South 85th East Avenue.

"Station 25 was monitoring the radio and put ourselves on the assignment. We were delayed by about 3:30 minutes. EMSA was still behind us on arrival. This was a DOA ..."

Clark said the city is examining every reported dispatch error and that he is not aware of a case in which safety was compromised by the technical issues.

Miller said firefighters will continue to protect the public despite the technical challenges.

"No matter if it is this situation or an ice storm, our members will do everything they can to protect the citizens of Tulsa and make sure they get the job done," Miller said.

He said firefighters are frustrated by an apparent lack of accountability.

"There were six different project managers put over this implementation, and some of them just flat out didn't do their jobs," he said.

Timeline of Tulsa Fire Department dispatch issues

Late 2011/early 2012: EMSA purchases the TriTech computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system for the city of Tulsa to improve communication between EMSA and firefighters.

Fall 2012: Planned implementation of TriTech CAD system by city is delayed due to "vendor issues," city officials say.

March 2012: Implementation of TriTech system again delayed due to vendor issues.

July 31, 2013: City begins using TriTech CAD system to dispatch fire calls.

Oct. 24: Fire Department forms working group to study "CAD/incident delay" problems and other technical issues.

Nov. 1: EMSA begins a new contract with American Medical Response that includes increased response times. TFD says changes will add 40 medical calls per day for firefighters.

December-Jan. 4: In numerous emails, firefighters report errors in dispatching medical and fire calls and express concerns about public safety.

Tuesday: In an email, Fire Communications Officer Gerry Tarver says an attempt to fix the CAD problem has failed. "During the testing, TriTech advised that they are seeing some other issues that will also require some more research."

(c)2014 Tulsa World (Tulsa, Okla.)


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