Anne Arundel suspends use of new emergency dispatch system

After more than two weeks of chronic problems in the rollout of the county's new multimillion-dollar emergency dispatch system, Anne Arundel officials decided Friday to shut it down.

The county will use the system it had before Dec. 6 while it tackles software problems in the new one, which has outraged police officers and firefighters and led their chiefs to recommend suspending its use over safety concerns.

"I'm glad they're listening," said O'Brien Atkinson, president of the largest police union. "We can't have police out there with dispatchers not knowing where they are and not able to send backup."

Craig Oldershaw, president of the firefighters union, expressed relief. When it became clear the closest units weren't being called to emergencies, fire stations reverted to keeping their radio communications open to ensure they weren't missing anything.

Among the troubles with the new system, according to union officials: Police were called to Defense Highway for a car wreck that turned out to be on Crownsville Road, and officers can't dig back far enough into prior calls to an address, which police said is a safety issue.

Also, officials said, the system does not provide street addresses for named buildings, which led dispatchers to use their cellphones one night to find the address for a church parking lot where a person was having difficulty breathing. Police responding to the backs of businesses were unable to tell dispatchers where they were because the address was in the front.

A fire station on Kent Island was called to an accident on U.S. 50 in Cape St. Claire, even though a closer unit was available. And when the Kent Island unit turned out to be on a call, the next one contacted was not the closest available, Oldershaw said.

Atkinson said dispatchers "broke down crying" in frustration. At a union meeting attended by more than 100 officers this week, police decided to make a formal complaint to the chief and elected officials.

The switch back to the old system will take place Tuesday because of computer network complexities, county officials said.

"We will just hold our breath over the holiday weekend and hope there is nothing that happens that is a problem for us and for our citizens," Oldershaw said.

County Executive John R. Leopold said he agreed to the request from Police Chief James Teare Sr. and Fire Chief J. Robert Ray to pull the plug on the new system. He estimated that it would take up to 30 days to get the new dispatch system operational and train employees.

The county has been meeting with the manufacturer to iron out the problems.

"The safety of the first responders — the police officers, the firefighters and the paramedics — must be paramount and also the safety of our citizens," Leopold said.

The $6.6 million computer-aided dispatch and record-keeping system, made by California-based Tiburon Inc., has been in the works for four years to replace the county's outdated emergency dispatch system and records management program, said Bill Ryan, chief of information technology for the county.

Ryan said the dispatch system needs "adjustments to work better with dispatch."

While the old dispatch system can be used, that doesn't hold for the records side, Ryan said. The records management system is nearing capacity for how many records it can hold and classify.

"We will still run the new records piece," he said.

Tiburon has provided dispatch and records management for law enforcement, fire, rescue and corrections agencies for 30 years, according to its website. Its systems are used around the country, including in Prince George's County, Baltimore and Arlington County, Va., according to a 2008 news release on its website.

A Tiburon spokeswoman could not be reached for comment Friday.

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