OCFA’s New Dispatch System Beset With Problems

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The Orange County Fire Authority’s new computerized dispatch system has been beset by problems since its launch in September, complicating emergency responses involving other agency fire departments.

While the bugs have been worked out regarding dispatches for the Fire Authority’s 23 member cities, officials say, issues remain with communications with the dispatch center run by Anaheim-based MetroNet, which serves most of northern Orange County.

As of now, there are no computer-to-computer communications between the Fire Authority’s system and MetroNet, which means that when a Fire Authority dispatcher needs to request a mutual aid rescue response from MetroNet, he or she must make a call to MetroNet’s dispatch center. The same problem exists with the dispatch service for Laguna Beach.

Fire Authority officials acknowledged that such calls typically increase response times, but said they couldn’t estimate by how much. However, in past instances they have said phone calls between dispatch centers can add 20 seconds to a minute delays, which the new systems are designed to prevent.

For months, sources close to the Fire Authority have said it was known internally that the new system “was not ready for prime time,” and predicted significant issues would likely occur.

The sources, who requested anonymity, asserted the long-planned system was rushed into operation for political purposes, referring to agency internal dysfunction from the tenure of former Chief Keith Richter.

Richter was forced to retire in August, after a management audit commissioned to examine his performance found “a lack of accountability” at all levels of the Fire Authority. The audit, done by Costa Mesa-based Management Partners Inc., cited ineffective leadership, poor morale, and mishandling of discipline and staffing.

Jeffrey Bowman, who previously served as chief of the Anaheim and San Diego city fire departments, was brought in during September on an interim basis; then last week was named permanent chief.

Battalion Chief Dave Anderson disputed the notion that the new system was implemented prematurely.

“No, sir; the project team made a decision to move forward based on a consensus,” Anderson said. “We always knew there was a risk. But some problems you simply can’t see in a test environment; there is nothing like live moving traffic.”

Since the Sept. 9 start, the new system has been “reliable” for Fire Authority dispatches in its 23 cities, except for Oct. 7, Anderson added. The Fire Authority handles about 350 rescue calls a day, of which about 85 percent are for paramedic services.

From 3 to 11 p.m. that Tuesday, he said, the system crashed — called “an interruption” — necessitating an emergency response plan where added staff were deployed to phone lines for rescue dispatches.

The new dispatch system also replaces a separate system that had been in operation for Santa Ana, which joined the Fire Authority in the spring of 2012. Response times in Santa Ana should be shortened as a result.

On Nov. 20, the Fire Authority’s board will consider a item to adjust funds for the computer system — which will cost about $2.6 million.

Mutual aid between fire departments, and regions, has a long history in California, after advanced systems were widely implemented in the 1970s. Balancing how different governmental jurisdictions address resource use and cost issues largely has been achieved, authorities say.

But newer computer dispatch systems are increasingly complex. They must communicate with a variety of agencies and hundreds of dispersed rescue vehicles, as technology is advancing at a rapid pace, so pauses and or breakdowns are expected with major changes.

An integral aspect of the new dispatch systems is a component called an “automatic vehicle locator,” which provides the position of every transponder-equipped fire truck and/or ambulance in the regions covered.

But the new operations show this vehicle locator can disrupt how mutual aid requests typically are made, drawing more rescue units from another jurisdiction to get the fastest response.

When the Fire Authority turned on its new automatic vehicle locator on Sept. 9, officials say, fire departments served by MetroNet — including Huntington Beach, Fountain Valley, Anaheim and Fullerton/Brea — saw requests for mutual aid responses jump dramatically.

For example, officials say Anaheim fire/rescue crews from three stations east of Highway 55 were being dispatched to the Fire Authority cities of Yorba Linda and Placentia — leaving canyon areas prone to wild fires potentially exposed.

“When the Fire Authority flipped the switch, it had an immediate impact on surrounding jurisdictions — like ours, where mutual aid calls tripled,” said Rusty Coffelt, Anaheim deputy chief for support services.

For Fullerton’s Fire Department, mutual aid calls doubled, said Tom Schultz, deputy chief of operations.

“I don’t want to use the word growing pains,” said Schultz. “We all want a scientific, logical approach, where the different agency systems seamlessly dispatch units.”

In the words of Fountain Valley Fire chief Tony Coppolino, the Fire Authority’s new “computer aided dispatch” system “wasn’t talking” to MetroNet’s computer system.

Coppolino said the Fire Authority’s new system also was involved in “ghosting” communications — somehow altering the status of particular rescue crew teams — be it in the station, on the move, or at a rescue. This caused confusion about unit readiness or availability, he added.

When the Fire Authority first turned on its new system Sept. 9, Gary Gionet, MetroNet’s dispatch manager, said his agency’s departments started seeing the issues right away. “It was of immediate concern,” he added.

By Sept. 11, the Fire Authority turned off its computer-to-computer communication with MetroNet, then using the phone calls for mutual aid requests.

During September after attempts to correct issues, Fire Authority staff twice again turned on the computer-to-computer communications with MetroNet, records show, but each time problems arose prompting it to be turned off within two days in both instances.

Finally, on Sept. 25, records show computer-to-computer communications between the Fire Authority and MetroNet were turned off until all the issues could be resolved.

The issue of mutual aid responses is prompting high-level, soul searching among fire chiefs, computer specialists and city officials, who met on Nov. 6 in Huntington Beach.

The new equipment-locating devices are forcing rescue agencies and municipalities to rethink their systems — to capture the computer-directed time advantage for dispatching a unit, without creating a resource or cost irregularity for a particular jurisdiction.

In the coming weeks, Anderson said a decision will be made when to turn on the Fire Authority’s computer-to-computer communication with MetroNet. Such communication may occur sooner with Laguna Beach, he added.

How to fully address the more complicated issues with the automatic vehicle locating system isn’t expected to be rectified until early next year, officials say.

“There likely will be a little effort needed in this area,” Anderson said.

Rex Dalton is a San Diego-based journalist who has worked for the San Diego Union-Tribune and the journal Nature. You can reach him directly at rexdalton@aol.com.

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