County will scrap new emergency dispatch system, upgrade older one

Anne Arundel County will not revive the new emergency dispatch system that it unplugged a year ago, but will instead scrap it and modernize its old system.

Launched in December 2011, the new dispatch system operated for just three weeks before it was shut down when law enforcement officials and fire chiefs were besieged by complaints from police officers, firefighters and dispatchers, officials said.

The county could not immediately provide figures on how much money it spent specifically on the computer-aided dispatch, or CAD, system, but officials said the county has paid an overall $6.2 million on a $6.6 million technology contract that included the dispatch component.

"Dispatch is not coming back," said Bill Ryan, head of information technology for the county government. "Our strategy now is to enhance the older dispatch system and integrate [it] with the records management" component of the overall contract.

Ryan, whose department handles the contract with Tiburon, a California-based company that specializes in public safety and security systems, called the dispatch system "a small piece of the overall cost."

From the outset, police, firefighters and dispatchers complained about the new dispatch system, which was a move from a text-based system to one featuring a screen with drop-boxes and a mouse.

Among the complaints were that dispatchers found the system unwieldy; officers on emergency calls couldn't be located by dispatchers; locations and addresses were not in sync; police couldn't pull up complete data on previous calls to specific addresses; and the closest available units for fire and emergency medical calls were sometimes bypassed in favor of ones farther away.

County officials did not fault Tiburon, which Ryan calling "a very willing partner in our success."

A Tiburon spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Fire Department officials said it was their understanding that no final decision on the new dispatch system had been reached, but the firefighters union had a different understanding.

"They threw it in the toilet," said Craig Oldershaw, president of the Anne Arundel County Professional Fire Fighters Association.

Ryan said plans have been in the works for several months and call for the county to upgrade the 25-year-old system. The older system has been working since late last December while the county worked with Tiburon, police, firefighters and dispatchers to iron out what county officials initially called kinks. Meanwhile, the records management piece of the contract, which covers several county agencies, has worked since it was turned on last year.

In addition to revamping the old dispatch system, the county is expected to spend $400,000 on a new report-writing program for police officers, instead of the one in the $6.6 million contract, Ryan said.

Police said any replacement should address officers' complaints that the new program gobbled up time. One Fraternal Order of Police official said it took him five hours to complete reports on a four-vehicle crash with nine victims.

Despite the changes, the county will remain within the $6.6 million budgeted and will spend less in the long run, Ryan said. The older CAD system costs $200,000 a year to maintain — about two-thirds the expense for the new one.

Asked if he thought the county had wasted money by starting with the single-vendor contract, County Executive John R. Leopold said, "I hope not.

"I don't consider the goal of providing an effective system, with which the police officers are comfortable with its utilization, is a waste of money," he said. "We want to make sure we get it right."

County Council President Derek Fink, a Pasadena Republican, said he was not aware of current dispatch system plans, and wondered why the county didn't just upgrade the old dispatch system to start with.

"That new system wasn't free," he said.

Dave Abrams, a spokesman for Leopold, responded, "You have to make the best judgment that you can on the product that suits your needs, and on what product is the most prudent from a fiscal standpoint long term. And that's what we did."

"There are going to be changes, but there are changes so that it's easier for them to move from the current system into an upgraded system," said Police Maj. Thomas Wilson, commander of the Police Department's administrative services bureau.

Union leaders said the county did the right thing to protect them and the public.

Mike Akers, president of the county chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, whose members include dispatchers, said pulling the plug on the dispatch program was "the right thing."

"The end users were not brought in at the initial purchase or introduction," said O'Brien Atkinson, president of the county chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police.

"They have been now," Leopold said, "so that people who are going to be using the system have been included in the selection and implementation of it."

Leopold said his role was to pull everyone together, and his goal was to have the problems resolved to their satisfaction. Changes are likely to be completed next summer, he said.

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