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911 Whitewash? Leaders Say the Transition to Consolidated Emergency Dispatch in Scott County Has Gone Well. It Should Have Gone Better. PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 10 November 2011 11:00

(This is the first of two articles on the Scott Emergency Communications Center. This piece focuses on implementation problems with emergency-response consolidation. The second part will deal with the price tag and to what extent taxpayers have gotten what they were promised.)

Let’s start with the metaphors.

We’re roughly six months into the transition to a consolidated Scott County emergency-dispatch and -records system, said Davenport City Administrator Craig Malin on October 6. “This is the part of the movie where ... the anxiety is. Then there’s the resolution at the end, and there’s a happy ending. We’re at that point where we’re going to be focusing on what the issues are.”

“In a crawl/walk/run category, we stood up and got wobbly,” said Bettendorf City Administrator Decker Ploehn, also on October 6. “But we’re still standing. But we’re not walking yet. But we’re pretty much not crawling, either. So we’re working our way forward, and we hope to get to running. And I think we’re going to get to running; we’re not there yet.”

The Scott Emergency Communications Center (SECC) brings under one roof – at 1100 East 46th Street in Davenport – what had been four dispatching centers, serving Scott County’s 12 municipal and county law-enforcement agencies, 16 fire departments, and five ambulance services.

All those agencies are now using the same radio system, and law-enforcement agencies are also using a single record-keeping system – both of which allow for improved interdepartmental communication. Agencies went live with the system from early April through early May.

Still to come – probably early next year – is the consolidation of each organization’s dispatchers into a single dispatching entity, and the separation of call-taking and dispatching functions. The latter of those is expected to shave 30 seconds off the time it takes to dispatch emergency responders.

And late next year, Medic EMS will decide whether to fold its dispatching operations into SECC or just continue to have its dispatchers working out of the SECC building.

By the standards of local government, the project is complicated. “It takes a good solid year to iron out” issues and difficulties, said SECC Director Brian Hitchcock, who previously oversaw consolidations in Ashland County, Wisconsin, and McHenry County, Illinois. “Every one of those has issues and bugs that have to be worked out. ... We all wish it could happen overnight.” He noted that every consolidation takes a different amount of time to work through, but that the one-year estimate runs through next April.

The consolidation – recommended by a 2006 study and put into motion by a December 2007 intergovernmental agreement – is also expensive, with capital costs of roughly $28 million. The building itself cost $7.31 million. New portable radios for all agencies cost almost $7 million, purchased without a formal bidding process. Installing a “central electronics bank and associated communications gear into and around the 911 center” cost more than $1.6 million, Hitchcock said. And the dispatching and record-keeping software that has been so problematic cost $2.7 million.

The current operational budget of the SECC is nearly $7.2 million, which includes almost $665,000 in debt service. Outside of operations, the current Scott County budget includes nearly $915,000 in debt service for SECC equipment.

The project’s cost is one reason the SECC bears scrutiny. Beyond that, the tax levy that funds the SECC – unlike those of school districts and municipal governments – is uncapped, meaning that there’s the potential for taxpayers to be on the hook for any runaway costs that might occur. And although four of the five voting members of the SECC board are elected officials, they aren’t directly elected by voters to that board, so there isn’t the typical accountability for expenditures or performance.

Eldridge resident Diane Holst, who has regularly raised questions about the consolidation process, said she wants to make sure taxpayer money is being well-spent. “If we’re paying that kind of money, let’s make sure it works, that we’re getting what we’re paying for,” she said. “When they [officers] say it’s all fine. Then I’ll quit raising questions.”

At this point, though, there are still plenty of questions. The positive tone of administrators is a sharp contrast to what’s being said outside of public forums.

“Bettendorf went live [in April] and had problems; two weeks later the county and rural departments went live and had problems; another two weeks went by and Davenport went live and had problems,” said one police officer to whom I talked. “Why didn’t we stop then and regroup until these problems were resolved?”

The Implementation Has Not Been Successful”

A September 28 memo to Hitchcock from consultant Deltawrx is bluntly critical of how the transition was managed, particularly with the computer-aided dispatch, mobile-computing, and records-management systems from Michigan-based vendor New World Systems (NWS). That is admittedly just one aspect of the consolidation, yet it’s also one that emergency responders use all the time.

“Patrol officers are angry and have lost confidence in the software,” the memo states. “Agencies are devoting time, energy, and resources to working with NWS to fix and test broken software. The frustration level of the Davenport Police Department is so high that it is threatening to revert to its legacy software application. Bettendorf and some rural agencies have already reverted to using Mobile Cop to run NCIC [National Crime Information Center] queries in the car.”

It summarizes: “By any measure, the implementation of the NWS applications has not been successful. The software does not work to the specifications proposed, end users are frustrated and angry, administration is devoting already scarce resources and time to fix something that should not be broken, and accountability for problems is almost nonexistent.”

Last month, the SECC board approved a $30,000 contract with Deltawrx to address some of the issues cited in its memo. The proposal includes activities into February.

This indicates that the SECC acknowledges problems in implementation and is committed to fixing them.

Yet the SECC could have retained Deltawrx earlier for $80,000 to monitor and troubleshoot the entire NWS implementation process. While one SECC board member praised the decision to bring Deltawrx back now – thus saving $50,000 – Scott County Administrator Dee Bruemmer said she wished that the consultant had been kept on.

Furthermore, while the Deltawrx memo relays cautious optimism from police departments that problems can be fixed, those issues and their causes might have some long-term negative effects: The memo expresses a skepticism that the New World Systems software will ever be embraced. “All agency representatives with whom Deltawrx spoke ... expressed a desire for the system to work,” the memo says. “Some people did express doubt that it would be possible to fix the problems, and others are concerned that end-users will never accept the NWS software, even if it works as intended.”

While the memo says that “dwelling on the past to place blame is not a useful exercise if SECC and SECC agencies want to move forward,” it adds that “what happened in the past to bring SECC and SECC agencies to this point in time does bear on our recommendations for moving forward.”

The report identifies eight problems in the transition to NWS software:

• “Expedited implementation”;

• “Unstructured functional testing”;

• “Ineffective system-build sessions”;

• “Condensed training”;

• “Software that does not meet contractual obligations”;

• “Ineffective customer support from NWS”;

• “SECC support structure”; and

• “Vague information-system-management structure.”

Many of those shortcomings appear to flow from the first. The Deltawrx report says: “Despite warnings to the contrary, SECC moved forward with a 14-month implementation schedule for systems that typically take 18 to 24 months to implement under the best circumstances. ... To expedite the implementation, shortcuts were taken; training was compressed and systematic testing was not conducted. When the system was cut over to live operations, NWS had not yet developed key software modules and interfaces, and promised functionality was missing or not working as intended.”

Malin, Ploehn, and Bruemmer (all nonvoting, ex officio members of the SECC board), as well as SECC Director Hitchcock, sounded a similar refrain: Yes, there have been problems and bugs during the consolidation, but that’s to be expected in such a massive endeavor. And most aspects of consolidation have gone well.

Download Embed Embed this video on your site Audio interview with Craig Malin, Decker Ploehn, Dee Bruemmer, and Brian Hitchcock (58 minutes)

“I think the big picture is heading in the right direction,” Malin said. “We have an implementation issue with one component of the software package that we need to work through. ... The records system isn’t where we need it to be in order to do our operations as efficiently as we did in the past.”

“We are as pleased as we had anticipated we would be at this point in time,” Ploehn said.

And both Ploehn and Malin said that shifting the costs of dispatching from their cities to the county has allowed them to both lower their municipal property-tax rates while funding additional services and projects. (The second part of this article – to be published in the November 23 edition of the River Cities’ Reader – will deal with the question of whether the consolidation has saved taxpayers money.)

Bruemmer, Malin, Ploehn, and Hitchcock were all asked via e-mail to comment on the Deltawrx memo, and specifically whether they felt the project was rushed at the expense of results.

Bruemmer wrote: “All staffs are working through the issues with a forward-look approach. It is always easy to be a Monday-morning quarterback. I decline to take that position.”

Malin wrote that he agreed with Deltawrx’s assessment of the current situation, the causes, and the recommendations. But he said claiming that “expedited implementation” caused most of the problems cited in the memo “goes beyond Deltawrx’s report. I also don’t accept the premise that 14 months isn’t enough time to do the work that needed to be done by NWS.”

Hitchcock added in an e-mail: “There were no warnings given [by Deltawrx] not to implement in the 14-month timeframe. When being presented the New World Systems software and again in contract negotiations with New World Systems, they were well aware of the timelines involved in the project. They did indicate that these projects usually take from 18 to 24 months. When New World Systems was asked if the 14-month implementation would be a problem, they indicated that it would not be; it would just take a little extra work. NWS also indicated that they have made implementations in as little as 12 months. ... SECC relied on the ability and experience of New World Systems to assist us in guiding this project to completion. Testing and training were performed based on recommendations from New World Systems. At no time did New World Systems indicate that the project needed to be delayed prior to the implementation.”

Ploehn deferred to Hitchcock.

SECC board members – Scott County Board of Supervisors Chair Tom Sunderbruch, Bettendorf Mayor Mike Freemire, Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba, Eldridge Mayor Marty O’Boyle, and Medic EMS Board President James Lehman – were also given the opportunity to respond to the Deltawrx memo.

Sunderbruch acknowledged that “most of the ‘key factors contributing to the current situation’ flow from the first: ‘expedited implementation.’ However, I was not involved on a day-to-day basis, and Brian Hitchcock, who was/is involved on a day-to-day basis, takes issue with some of those findings, and I have confidence and trust in his reports.”

He added: “Hindsight is great and, of course, deadlines could have been pushed back if problems were known ahead of time. To my knowledge, that was not the case.”

Freemire and Lehman wrote that they agreed with Sunderbruch’s assessment. “I think Chairman Sunderbruch did an excellent job of capturing the essence of the issues,” Freemire wrote.

At press time, Gluba and O’Boyle had not responded to the November 4 e-mail request.