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

You Have to Flip the Switch Sometime”

While the big-picture assessment of the consolidation process varies wildly depending on to whom one talks, there is general agreement from everybody I talked to that training on and testing of the New World Systems software could have been done better.

“Why don’t you test the system before you go online?” Holst asked. “Why put the departments through that?”

(When asked about Holst’s concerns overall, Hitchcock said: “Every time she thinks there’s a problem, she thinks the system’s failing. ... It’s not. ... This is a process we have to go through.”)

Several people noted that no amount of pre-launch testing or training can find all bugs; it can’t anticipate all situations officers will face, and it can’t replicate all agencies using the system simultaneously.

“If we had to do it over again, I wish there would have been more offline training,” Redington said. “More training would have been good, but you still have to go live with it sometime.”

He added that Bettendorf’s police department probably fared better than most when it came to training, because its training team attended all sessions, even those that didn’t directly bear on their jobs: “We set up a pretty good system, probably by accident. ... We thought, ‘Let’s keep everyone together. The more we all know about the whole system, it probably would make more sense to us.’”

Malin said that some problems aren’t going to be apparent with the records-management system until it’s done under a load in the field. “Until you’re doing it at scale, it’s practically impossible to know if it will work perfectly,” he said. “You have to flip the switch sometime.”

Yet there was acknowledgment that increased testing, more or better training, and more forgiving deadlines might have made the transition less frustrating for officers.

When asked what aspects of the transition should have been done differently, Ploehn said: “I would have said we probably would have tested, either more or simultaneously more, so that we wouldn’t have, say, crashes occurring. We could have figured that out. But we didn’t.”

“I would have liked it if we pushed back the opening date” to give officers more familiarity and training, and to catch some bugs earlier, Redington said.

Hitchcock said that in retrospect, it might have been wise to have New World Systems train each department directly instead of only conducting train-the-trainer sessions, in which representatives from each agency are given instruction and then present it to their co-workers. “Maybe we would have spent the extra money to put New World Systems in there to go and train each of the entities, because then the training might have been more consistent,” he said. But “we had some time constraints, too. ...

“When all of this was firing off, we had 25 other projects in play that were coming to make this come together. ... So there were some time crunches ... ,” he explained. “You bet: If we could have pushed it out six months to a year, I think we would have entertained more ... testing.”

Yet this is a contrast to his perspective on integration of dispatchers – the process of cross-training them so they’re no longer serving just one geographic area or municipality. “You can’t put a timeline on that,” he said, noting that SECC had vacancies to fill, and dispatchers require six months of training.

(This shift will allow SECC to optimize its dispatching resources where they’re needed. There are some concerns about that process. “Our concern initially ... is that now we will get employees ... who don’t know the city as well,” Redington said.)

When asked when full integration of dispatching would be complete, Hitchcock said it wouldn’t happen in 2011, but he wouldn’t commit to a date. “I’m not going to pull that pin to make that conversion happen until we are comfortable as an agency that it will happen,” he said. “You’ll ask for failure when you do that [put a deadline on it].”

Hitchcock explained the different approaches to deadlines for live operations on the New World software compared to dispatching by noting that local governments budgeted based on shifting dispatching to SECC this past spring. If that deadline had been pushed later to allow for more testing and training, those governments wouldn’t have had the money budgeted to continue on their old dispatch systems.

Beyond additional training and a more relaxed schedule, there were other ideas on how the transition might have been handled better.

“I think we would have hired Deltawrx to stay with us,” Bruemmer said. The company negotiated the contract with New World and could have gone through the testing and validation of software with SECC and its agencies. “We would have seen some red flags sooner.”

That’s not a uniform position, however. At the October 13 SECC board meeting, Bettendorf Mayor Freemire praised the decision to re-engage Deltawrx at this point rather than retaining the firm throughout implementation. “We had a budget which would have allowed $80,000 for this type of contract, where a third set of eyes ... would ... ensure the implementation, and a lot of these smaller issues are taken care of. My hats off to the staff, and that they were able to forgo a $50,000 expenditure. And unfortunately, what I think we may see are people that say clearly there’s a $30,000 expenditure and forget that there’s a $50,000 savings, from what was originally proposed. ... And I just want to make sure that that isn’t lost.”

Hitchcock implied that it should not have been necessary to retain Deltawrx to assist in the initial implementation. “We have to rely on a certain level [of competence] with the vendor, as well. When we’re being led down the road that this will work, we have to believe in those. They came out on top; they were chosen by all of the representatives to be the outcome. I’m not going to defend the company; I think there’s some improvements that could have been made there as well. But we ... strongly feel that we have a company that’s willing to admit to some of that [problems] and also work hard to come to a resolution. If we didn’t feel as a group at this point that was worth it, we’d be working at other avenues.”

The Case for Increased Transparency

It’s a fair question whether the working-out-the-kinks phase of consolidation should be something done publicly. Law-enforcement agencies have a chain of command, and standard operating procedure is to talk to the media only when directed to by a superior.

“Individual officers should communicate their concerns to their supervisors,” Malin said. “I know that they have.”

When asked whether there had been a directive to keep radio communications to the essential during the weekend of Bix and RAGBRAI, Ploehn responded: “Did you hear something to that effect? ... Was it from an officer?”

It’s a clever parry, as Ploehn knows full well that officers shouldn’t be talking to the media.

(Hitchcock said some agencies did request that their officers minimize radio traffic: “The directive was only to keep it to mission-critical items. ... It wasn’t from us.” He also said he understood a concern about overloading the system, but that was unwarranted. “We could have handled double that traffic that day,” he said. “That was a very good proving ground.” Bruemmer added: “It’s adding confidence to the system.)

Yet there’s a disconnect between the public comments of SECC leaders on the one hand and the Deltawrx memo and the private concerns of street-level officers on the other; they’re not necessarily incongruous, but they’re tonally opposite. Administrators involved in the consolidation take a nothing-to-see-here attitude, while Deltawrx wrote that there are serious problems that affect whether officers will ultimately accept the New World software.

In that context, SECC leaders might be wise to increase transparency – especially considering that its board members aren’t directly elected by voters and that its levy is uncapped. Taxpayers should have even more opportunity to verify that their taxes are being well-spent; that means letting them see the unvarnished truth – the bad with the good. If, as SECC leaders claim, the consolidation has gone relatively well and is a good deal for taxpayers – both in terms of reasonable cost and value (such as personnel and communications efficiencies, and emergency-response performance) – the public will see that.

And while it might be embarrassing, allowing officers to publicly state their problems, frustrations, and concerns would be a good thing – perhaps not in the media, but at a time during SECC board meetings devoted to allowing ground-level stakeholders to air their perspectives. That would show a commitment to make the consolidation work, and a willingness to be held accountable for its shortcomings.

That’s not happening now, and that’s one reason Holst continues to raise issues she hears about. She accepts the one-year timeline for fine-tuning the system, but she said she fears problems might not get solved if there aren’t pointed questions from the public.

“If I can keep the heat on ... then a year won’t slip by,” she said. “This is their key time to keep the pressure on the vendors. ... You don’t get your bugs out then, you start to make work-arounds and people compensate, and you’re not getting the full value of the system. ... Let’s be more open about this, acknowledge that there’s something [wrong], and let those departments use their old systems temporarily. Don’t hide that there’s an issue right now. Be up-front.”

The first of seven recommendations from the Deltawrx report gently pushes SECC leaders in that direction: “Accept responsibility for project outcome.” It starts: “The first step in reaching a successful outcome for SECC and SECC agency leaders is to agree that they are responsible and accountable for a successful product outcome. Implementation of the following recommendations requires commitment to success from the leadership in participating agencies. Commitment to success means devoting resources and energy, which we understand is difficult to request when so much time and energy have already been devoted.”

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