04.03.10

Wilco’s 9-1-1 Emergency Response System: In Sticky Notes and Paper Maps We Trust

Posted in Commissioners Court, Precinct 1, Precinct 2, Williamson County at 7:00 am by Citizen Seller

This being an election year and all, Williamson County Commissioners Court once again issued on March 30 what has become its seemingly obligatory announcement about planned technology improvements to the County’s antiquated system of responding to and dispatching 9-1-1 emergency calls. The WCCC made similar announcements in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles. What’s surprising this election year, however, is Precinct 1 Commissioner-turned-hobbyist-journalist Lisa Birkman admits to the primitive nature of the system Williamson County uses to handle and dispatch life-or-death 9-1-1 calls.

“The current [9-1-1] dispatch system uses a sticky note pad and a paper map,” writes Commissioner Birkman in her Examiner.com blogger column on March 30, 2010. In her blog post, Birkman refers to first making this statement in 2005. Thanks to Birkman, Long, and others, this very same 9-1-1 dispatch system is still being used by the County today.

As we reported in 2008, Williamson County’s 9-1-1 computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system was wholly obsolete when purchased in 1996 in that it did not meet even the most fundamental criteria for circa 1980 CAD systems. A 9-1-1 CAD system – by definition – aids dispatchers in the process of selecting and dispatching police, fire, and EMS in response to 9-1-1 calls by automatically verifying addresses and making unit recommendations. The county’s so-called CAD system can’t do that. After all, sticky note pads and a paper map are about as far away from an automated system as carbon paper and a typewriter.

Is the County’s lack of a 9-1-1 CAD system really a big deal? Well, it is if you value speed and accuracy in an emergency. Instead of literally taking a couple of seconds to notify first responders and get them moving to an incident (like your home or your child’s daycare center, for instance), Wilco’s set-up takes several minutes to accomplish the same task – and there’s no telling if those first responders are the closest or most appropriate units. So, you could be waiting a good long while for help to arrive.

The original certificates of obligation were approved by the WCCC in 2006 and included $1 million for a new 9-1-1 CAD system. So why the endless foot-dragging?

The County’s March 30 news release features rah-rah quotes from incumbent candidate for Precinct 2 Commissioner Cynthia Long, who coincidentally is leading the latest incarnation of the Wilco CAD project. But don’t get too excited by the announcement issued on March 30. Collateral damage to those calling 9-1-1 for help notwithstanding, there’s no reason to rush things when you’re repeatedly milking an issue for political purposes.

According to the County’s news release, Long and her fellow Commissioners will continue to keep residents and first responders in peril for at least another 18 additional months – the “anticipated” completion data of the “new” technology. That timing also happens to coincide with the 2012 election cycle. See how that works??

For background and source documents, read:

2010:

Court Awards Public Safety Technology Project Contract to SunGard,” Wilco news release, March 30, 2010

Lisa Birkman’s blog post as Examiner.com’s “Williamson County Conservative Examiner,” March 30, 2010

AAS “Wilco Wired” 3-30-10 blog entry on Wilco’s contract with SunGuard:

2008:

County to Upgrade Dispatch System,” Williamson County Sun, May 16, 2008

“EMS Adds Staff, Will Get New System,” Austin American Statesman, May 16, 2008
Statesman reports WCCC officials told they could have a new system installed within a year
(Note: This article is located in the Statesman’s archives, for which the outlet charges a nominal per-day fee to access.)

County Still Dragging Feet on 9-1-1 Emergency Dispatch System Replacement,” EOW, July 23, 2008
On Wilco’s stonewalling of CAD replacement efforts and implications.

WilCo Sends Another One Packing,” Austin Chronicle, April 25, 2008. On departure of Wilco department head frustrated with County’s obstruction of 9-1-1 CAD system acquisition.

2006:

County Plans for New Emergency Operations Center,” Community Impact, September 7, 2006

Commissioners Court Names Program Director,” Wilco news release, June 20, 2006, on hiring of Gary Oldham as Public Safety Project Director

County Names 911 Center Director,” Round Rock Leader, June 23, 2006

6 Comments »

  1. dembones said,

    April 3, 2010 at 10:26 am

    Thanks for a very well-written post. I totally agree with your premise that the persistent need to update the dispatch system is a tried-and-true election year issue.

    However, I did want to offer my first-hand observations from a recent trip I made to the Williamson County Sherriff’s Department Communications Center. I was on a Cub Scout field trip. The shift commander gave us a brief tour and what I saw may indicate that the center is in a bit better shape than it had been when Birkman wrote about “a sticky note pad and a paper map”.

    The communications center is divided into two halves. One handles dispatch. There are about 6 dispatch operator stations. Each station has 4 monitors. On one of the monitors was a satellite view above the home where a recent dispatch had been made. As with Google Earth, this is probably a recent satellite photograph with similar resolution. Other screens displayed windows of various software applications. I am certain there were sticky note pads around, but it looked to me like the system was being completely tracked by computer.

    The other half of the communications center is where the inbound 9-1-1 calls are answered. There looked to be about 8 operator stations, each with a dual-monitor PC. Again, I didn’t see any sticky note pads in use, but I can’t imagine that they were integral to the process. It appeared to me that when the information is taken by the 9-1-1 operator, it is typed into the computer and presumably the appropriate dispatcher in the other room would direct the first responders to the scene.

    From my perspective, I was impressed with what I saw; however, the workspace appeared too small for the number of workers. I’m certain this is a consequence of the county’s rapid population growth. They seemed to be making do with facilities that were designed for a much smaller crew. However, there did appear to be an adequate amount of technology.

    Of course, my short tour only offered me a chance to make these superficial observations. It would be very interesting to hear (possibly anonymously) from dispatchers and operators themselves. After all, we all want an effective and efficient countywide emergency dispatch system. If we can have a discussion and identify the needs that are not being met, we’re willing to work in whatever way necessary to advocate for improvements.

    I hope the County Commissioners who have been raising this issue every even-numbered year are doing so for the best possible reasons and not making this into political football.

  2. Citizen Seller said,

    April 3, 2010 at 2:01 pm

    Simply touring the communications center and gazing at the equipment doesn’t tell the story. That’s like looking at a new computer in an electronics store and assuming the computer comes with the necessary software and power to do all the jobs you need it to do.

    To see how Wilco’s automated 9-1-1 emergency CAD system stands up when compared against manual and post-1980s systems go to the handy chart at http://eyeonwilliamson.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/07/cad-functionality-chart.pdf

    First, it is not the Sheriff’s Department communications center. Emergency communications is a part of Williamson County Emergency Services. The communications center merely happens to be located in the Sheriff’s Department building (a carryover from pre-1996, when it was a part of the Sheriff’s Department.)

    There are disparate pieces of technology in the facility and they do not work together. The 9-1-1 system (telephones and computers related only to answering – not responding to – the inbound 9-1-1 telephone calls) is provided by CAPCOG, and that system has mapping capabilities to show call-takers the caller’s location – not the location of the incident. It’s kind of like Caller-ID with a map.

    Everything that happens after the telephone call is answered is handled by the 9-1-1 CAD system. And that’s where the crucial problem area resides. The CAD system (not CAPCOG’s 9-1-1 system) is essentially the engine that runs emergency response. What’s more, there is little to no integration between Wilco’s so-called CAD system and the CAPCOG-provided system. That’s like having to do your word processing on one computer and your spreadsheet work on another, different computer. You might have two screens on your desk but good luck trying to share those files.

    So, if you saw a map on the computer screen during your tour, it wasn’t a part of the CAD system.

    Here’s one aspect of the problem. While the use of 911 is extremely widespread, many calls are received on non-911 lines. Common examples – which happen many times each day – include calls from alarm companies for burglary, robbery, and fire alarms, calls from hospitals and personal physicians about a patient’s medical emergency occurring somewhere other than the location from which the caller is calling from, calls from friends and relatives of someone who is in need of help at a different location, and myriad others. In these instances – as well as with 911 calls – the current “CAD” system cannot discern whether a given address is valid, does not describe what fire or law enforcement agency serves that address, and does not make recommendations as to which units to send based on the address and type of emergency. These are the most fundamental functions of a CAD system and have been widely available since about 1980.

    While there is some automation in use at Wilco, it is genuinely primitive, and has been placing the lives of citizens needlessly at risk since acquired in 1996. This lack has nothing to do with population growth. It was inadequate in 1996 and is even moreso now. It’s not a real CAD system. It’s like the difference between the capabilities of Windows Notepad versus Microsoft Word. Both are computer based and both let you type words onto a screen. But try to do fundamental word processing with Notepad and it simply doesn’t perform the functions of Microsoft Word. You are handicapped if you actually need to create a modern document using Notepad.

    With regard to the term, “Sticky pads”—that was Birkman’s term, not mine. Hers might not be a literal description, but the paper maps characterization is both literal and accurate. For fire calls, for instance, Wilco’s dispatchers must consult a printed map in order to discern the proper fire departments to dispatch. Or, they must rely on their own memory and knowledge of county geography. This is inexcusable in this day and age.

    Like much of what goes on in Williamson County, if you take a casual glance at something, it may superficially appear to be OK – remember, we’re dealing with the masters of obfuscation here. But peel back the onion just a little bit, and all is not what it at first appears to be. And yes, our elected officials have long known that Wilco’s so-called CAD system is wholly inadequate and obsolete – this isn’t the first time this issue has arisen. Birkman says in her March 30, 2010 Examiner blog that she’s known about it since 2005. They also know it doesn’t take six years to purchase and replace it with something that actually does what CAD systems are supposed to do. It’s just not a high enough priority for them, and most taxpayers don’t have any way of knowing just how inadequately they’re being served — and don’t know what a modern CAD system looks like.

    I hasten to add that Wilco’s politicians, not dispatchers, are to blame for this mess. Unless Wilco’s dispatchers previously worked in a modern communications center, they may not even be aware of just how crippled their capabilities are. It is a testament to their dedication that any calls get successfully dispatched.

    Finally, DemBones made the observation that “…it looked to me like the system was being completely tracked by computer.” Sadly, that is largely exactly accurate, with “tracked” being the operative word. The current system is tracking what the dispatchers do; not assisting them in getting the job done. The assisting part is the fundamental function of a CAD system. Wilco’s dispatchers are working inefficiently due to their crippled systems, with immense opportunity for human induced error, and our citizens and public safety people in the field are inexcusably placed at risk.

    Here’s my recommendation: If you want to see a real 9-1-1 emergency CAD system in operation, take your Girl Scouts to the Austin/Travis County Combined Transportation and Emergency Communications Center. Ignoring the spaciousness of the facility and other external trappings of the place, ask anyone who works there to walk you and your scouts through the call-taking and dispatch process and to show you how their CAD system assists dispatchers. Tell them you want to understand the functionality of their CAD software. THEN, go back to Wilco’s emergency communications center and ask them to demonstrate the very same automated functionality. It simply isn’t there.

  3. Citizen Seller said,

    April 3, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    Oops, I meant to type “Cub” Scouts, not Girl Scouts. My apologies.

  4. John Mayson said,

    April 3, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    Amazingly the county came up with the funding to encrypt all of their radio communications. God forbid citizens know what’s going on in their community. Contrast this to Austin that encrypts only a handful of sensitive talkgroups which is the norm around the country. Adding encryption to every dispatch station, walkie-talkie, and on-board radio is very expensive. It’s really pathetic that was their priority instead getting help to us faster. Unfortunately we can’t dial 9-1-2 to get someone more competent to come to our aid.

  5. Citizen Seller said,

    April 3, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    John, you’re absolutely right on all counts. Stay tuned for another posting soon on that very subject.

  6. dembones said,

    April 3, 2010 at 9:39 pm

    Thanks again for all the great reporting on this. I am looking forward to your next post, and I will try to follow up on your suggestion to tour the Travis County emergency dispatch center.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

7ads6x98y