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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. - Page 2 PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 10 November 2011 11:00

Frustrating to the Street-Level Officers”

As with any project of this magnitude, there have been hiccups, and many of them have been solved or are in the process of being solved.

The purchase of bi-directional amplifiers improved radio coverage in the Hillandale area of Davenport and Lake Canyada. (The Hillandale amplifier was paid for by the SECC because that gap was anticipated by radio vendor RACOM and therefore beyond its obligation to provide coverage for 95 percent of the geographic area of Scott County. RACOM paid for the Lake Canyada amplifier.) Another amplifier for Buffalo – the SECC’s responsibility – has been ordered.

RACOM has also applied for a license for two additional frequencies from the Federal Communications Commission to handle radio traffic in northwest Davenport.

And many bugs and issues have been addressed in the New World software.

SECC Technology Systems Coordinator Gloria Fitzpatrick, a former Davenport dispatcher, noted one example. When the New World Systems software connected to the state’s NCIC database, it originally produced results based on a driver’s license number; that parameter was too narrow, officers said. So it was expanded to include a person’s name and date of birth, but that parameter was too broad because it looked at a range around the birthdate and variations on name spelling.

This wasn’t a software bug, she said: “It was working as designed.” Because this was New World’s first consolidation in Iowa, the search parameters with the state computers needed to be refined. “The issue is: How can we better define that?”

Since then, Fitzpatrick said, a sex parameter and a new work flow were implemented, and “those complaints are not coming in anymore.”

Other fixes are promised under a software updated delivered to SECC on September 15. “ We are still testing [that release] ... to ensure we are thorough,” Hitchcock wrote in an e-mail November 4.

Bettendorf had several issues with the New World software.

Police Chief Phil Redington said that after going live on April 5, his department was dissatisfied with the module that ran license plates and driver’s licenses. In May, he said, the department reverted to its old Mobile Cop system for those functions. The New World software, he said, “was slower than we liked, so we went back to Mobile Cop. ... Mobile Cop was easier to read, ... and it was quicker.”

Redington said several other factors were at work. Officer safety “was part of it,” he said, as was officers’ comfort level. “We thought it was important at that time, since we were on a whole new system, that we would go back to Mobile Cop to ease some of the stress of going to a new system ... ,” he said. “Our officers were comfortable with it.”

Ploehn wrote on November 4: “We are still on Mobile Cop as the interface to the State and the National Crime Information Center. The New World fix has moved to a back burner simply because Mobile Cop is what the officers are familiar with, and it is functional in the New World system. Once all of the other issues are resolved, we will make the comparison and determine what is more functional for the officers.”

Bettendorf also had difficulty initially with the “merge” process that takes approved field records and incorporates them into the SECC database; records weren’t being merged. Redington estimated that issue was resolved by early May.

On August 31, KWQC aired a report on the SECC, focusing on the complaints of Eldridge Police Chief David M. Kopatich. He highlighted connectivity problems and reports being rejected because of time parameters, and he expressed overall frustration: “Are we going to reach a point where we decide to pick up our toys and go back to our old system? We may end up doing that.”

In a September 28 article in the North Scott Press, Kopatich reiterated his concerns and said he’d gotten positive feedback from officers for speaking out. The article states: “Many high-ranking officials, including individuals at the SECC and administration from other police departments, were not as enthusiastic about Kopatich’s discussion with the media.” The chief responded: “The truth hurts sometimes.”

In the KWQC story, Scott County Sheriff Dennis Conard praised the New World system but acknowledged some problems with implementation: “There probably should have been a lot more testing of the different applications,” he said. “But we’re still having trouble getting the different applications that are fixed tested because that’s above and beyond the normal workload.”

Conard – whose office referred an interview request for this article to Bruemmer – said that police officers are generally impatient, and Redington agreed.

“It’s been a slow process, but it’s progressing,” said Redington. “We would have liked to have it gone smoother at the beginning. ... It’s a learning process for all of us.”

His department had undergone a similar computer-system switch in 2003, he said, and “we experienced some of the same frustration from time to time ... . Eventually, the bugs got worked out. ... We knew that in some respects, working through the bugs is normal.”

About New World bugs and problems, he said: “I feel confident that the path we’re on, eventually things will smooth out and that we’ll be in pretty good shape. ... Every week, it seems like we’re making progress. If I couldn’t say that, then my attitude would be a little different.”

Hitchcock said that since the August KWQC story, “there has been resolution to a number of issues.”

In an interview October 29, Kopatich said that things have improved. “So far our connectivity has been a lot better ... as far as running plates, getting plates to come back. ... It has slowly improved probably ever since the original [KWQC] news story has come out.”

As for time parameters, Fitzpatrick said: “That was a training problem.”

Kopatich said that he and his officers aren’t doing anything differently with those parameters, but “we are not having any other problems with date parameters on reports at this time.”

The issues that remain sound relatively minor.

For example, there’s a filter at the server level to “‘limit’ the access [to unit-status information] to help with connectivity issues,” Hitchcock wrote on November 4 of the ability for a computer in the SECC system to “see” on-duty vehicles and officers. “For example, instead of having the updates for all 300 units that may be listed as on-shift (police units, detectives, fire rigs, and so on), they will see the specific range of units for the agencies permitted (i.e., LeClaire PD may see two units for Princeton, one for McCausland, [and] seven for Bettendorf, as well as their own three units – or Davenport will only see their agency based on what they requested to see). ... With the release of the newest version, units in the field will be able to see all units within Scott County. This version will be released shortly after field testing has been completed and approved by Deltawrx.”

Yet some of the frustrations with the New World Systems software are not fixable. Reports on the New World Systems software, Kopatich said, take an additional 10 to 15 minutes apiece to complete. “It requires the street-level officer to do more work to get it to that end result,” he said.

And extra steps in the records-management component – requiring reports to be approved by a supervisor and then “merged” into the system – can create delays in officers being able to access information, even if it was generated within the same department. If a report is rejected by a supervisor at the end of a shift, for instance, an officer might not be able to resubmit it to the supervisor until the next day or even later. Previously, there was easy intradepartmental access to records prior to supervisor approval.

And even as problems are getting fixed, that doesn’t change that officers have been frustrated, that they’re therefore less confident in the system, and that resources have been usurped by problems that Deltawrx said could have been avoided.

Kopatich said he likes the idea behind consolidation. “I’m all for the agencies sharing information,” he said. “Maybe in time, it’s all going to work, and I hope that it does, but the implementation of it is frustrating to the street-level officers that are using the system.”

He added in an e-mail: “Providing the software keeps improving and becomes what we were promised, we will continue to keep using it for the common goal of consolidation.”

Asked whether he thought many of the issues police have dealt with since spring could have been resolved prior to going live, he said, “I would have hoped so.”

More Than 90 Percent Is Working”

The company line from SECC’s director and Bettendorf’s and Davenport’s city administrators is that police agencies need to be patient. They stressed that problems with New World do not negatively impact the speed of dispatching or officer or public safety.

“It does not affect our ability to get an officer on the scene,” Hitchcock said. In a later interview, he said: “None of this that we’re dealing with deals with officer safety. This is all about reporting ... .”

Ploehn said that “I am not aware nor is Chief Redington aware of any situations” in which public or officer safety has been compromised by SECC software or equipment.

Some people with whom I talked said they were concerned that difficulty connecting with the NCIC database to run plates and licenses could have resulted in officers not knowing that they were approaching somebody who could pose a significant threat.

Hitchcock dismissed that concern: “They pick up the mic, they call the dispatch center, and they have them run it.”

“I think some of the officers said that,” Ploehn said of concerns with running plates and licenses. I asked whether they were wrong, and he said officers were resistant to change: “‘It wasn’t what I did two days ago. ... It was different,’” he said. But “the ability to call in was still there.”

Overall, the administrators emphasized, many things have gone well and as planned with the consolidation.

“Ninety percent of this is working,” Malin said. “More than 90 percent is working.”

Malin extolled the virtues of the consolidation for the emergency-response process. “The project has created the most cohesive communications system that we’ve ever had in Scott County,” he said. “We are seeing a much bigger picture than we’ve had the capability before ... . I think there are significant efficiencies built in over the long haul. Residents in the City of Davenport aren’t paying twice for dispatch services anymore.”

Malin and Ploehn also said that the consolidation has allowed their cities to undertake projects that wouldn’t have happened – at least not on that scale – without the emergency-dispatch consolidation. While Scott County property-tax rates are higher overall because of the SECC levy, the rates for the two cities have dropped. (A discussion of that trade-off will be part of the November 23 article.)

Malin said Davenport has added nine police officers in the past five years, crime has dropped by roughly half, and the city has two new libraries and a rec center. “And we cut the [city’s property] tax rate” by 5 cents per $1,000 of valuation, he added.

Ploehn said Bettendorf issued $63.6 million in bonds for capital projects in fiscal years 2009 through 2011 while lowering its municipal property-tax rate by 25 cents.

Hitchcock said many variables and vendors were involved in the consolidation, from the building to the radio system to the phone system to New World’s software to a recording system to procedures to human resources.

He added that problems with the computer-aided dispatch and records-management systems from New World are functions of both complexity and a natural resistance people have to change. The dispatch/records systems not only involve software but also computer infrastructure – including laptops and their air cards – and human beings. “They’re very intense systems,” he said. “It’s a big program.”

Hitchcock said he understands officer frustration. “This is a new system for everybody out in the field,” he said. And because the software is more robust, it does take longer to enter reports.

“A lot of them were not ready for change,” Fitzpatrick said.

“I feel for the officer,” Bruemmer said.

Bringing all these bodies together, Malin said, has been “both a challenge and an opportunity. All these entities do things a little bit differently, and we need to make sure that each entity is able to do the thing that they specifically need that may be a little bit different from others. That’s the challenge.” The opportunity is entities “adopting best practices from others. Over the long haul, it’s a much better operation.”

Ploehn said that relationships among organizations that respond to emergencies “will get better, stronger.” Furthermore, he said, all agencies will be able to communicate during major events (such as this year’s Bix and RAGBRAI weekend), joint scenes, and joint commands. He gave the example of Davenport and Bettendorf police being on the same “event channel” during a presidential visit.

“Criminals don’t stay in one city,” Bruemmer added.

Ploehn further explained that improved communication will lead to better emergency response. “We used to hand off [from a fire department, for example, to an ambulance service]. ... There’s a transfer now that’s occurring. ... Moving them from ground to ambulance to hospital is becoming seamless.”

And everybody being on same records system will also pay dividends – for instance, Davenport officers being able to see a report on somebody they’ve stopped who might have been arrested a few days earlier in Bettendorf. “The ability for the intelligence to flow in the system, I believe, will be there, and that will be advantageous,” Ploehn said. “We’re not there yet with that piece.”