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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Another City of Portland computer mess?

A reader identifying himself as Jim Churchill, a retired systems analyst for the City of Portland Bureau of Emergency Communications, has sent us this troubling report:

On Sunday morning, April 17, 2011 about 3 am, the City Bureau of Emergency Communications (assisted by the Bureau of Technology Services) turned on its new Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) computer to process 9-1-1 calls for the city and all public safety agencies in Multnomah County. Also activated was a new Mobile Data System for police, fire, and emergency medical services units.

Here are some links describing the system:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6

The previous Northrop Grumman CAD system was very dependable and running almost flawlessly on HP Alpha DS25 hardware, with redundancy in multiple sites. Since the cutover on April 17, the new CAD system has failed at least 4 or 5 times with downtimes ranging from 45 minutes to several hours.

User reaction is mixed. Dispatchers and supervisors at BOEC were forced to learn a completely new system and lost many customized features that had been added over the 17-year life of the previous CAD system. Police officers have been ordered to pull their cars over to run queries because it takes more than one finger push to make a query on a license plate or to look at a dispatch incident. A user-friendly command line system on the previous system has been replaced with a more complex series of push buttons.

Fire users seem to be satisfied with the new system because as soon as they are dispatched, a map of the location is instantly transmitted to the responding units.

The new system cost at least $15 million, including hiring a consultant (IE Solutions) to write an RFP and manage the implementation for a cost of $2 million. The original funding came through council budgeting $4 million per year for three years, but Mayor Adams grabbed the dedicated CAD fund and created another bond to fund this project, which of course will cost taxpayers more over the long run.

The 9-1-1 director, Lisa Turley, ordered the consultant to alter the report to recommend the implementation of a new "off the shelf" CAD system. She deliberately failed to present two viable options to the City Council which would have been considerably cheaper:

#1 Upgrade the existing Northrop Grumman system to the latest HP hardware and keep all the customizations. Cost $500,000. No training involved so overtime costs would have been non-existent. This upgrade path has been done successfully by Lake Oswego, City of Phoenix, Snohomish County, San Mateo County, and other Northrop Grumman customers across North America.

#2 Use the existing CAD system currently in use by Clackamas and Washington Counties, which is managed by the Urban Area Strategic Initiative (UASI). The goal of this group is to promote interoperability with computer dispatch and data systems. The advantage would be that misrouted calls could be entered and sent to the appropriate agency very quickly without transferring the call. Mobile data users and dispatchers would have been able to easily send and receive calls and messages to and from each other.

The cost of adding Multnomah County to the existing Clackamas/Washington CAD would probably have been about $1.5 million. As you can see by the attachment, the city completely ignored the IGA and goal of UASI and as usual "did their own thing."

Recently the BOEC User Board, consisting of representatives from all police, fire and EMS agencies, were told that the cost to maintain the new system will be $2 million per year; $400,000 to the CAD vendor Versaterm for software and $1.6 million to the City Bureau of Technology Services to manage 24-7 support of the new system. When queried about when she knew about the maintenance costs, the BOEC director lied to the User Board and said "recently," when in actuality she had known of the costs for several years.

The User Board unanimously voted to not pay the fees. User agencies pay a fee based on population and were upset they had not received advance notice so the new fees could be added to their respective budgets.

Since the cutover, the system has failed every night at midnight. There are at least 500 mobile terminals (fire, police, and medical) reporting their GPS coordinates to the new CAD system so they can be located easily on a map, or in the case of EMS, recommend the closest unit for dispatch.

The GPS data is apparently being cleared out at midnight, and the process causes the main CAD system to crash. A software fix is being worked on to be transmitted electronically "over the air" to all mobile units, but it is not known when it will be completely repaired.

Comments (18)

Sadly, it isn't that surprising given the track record that Portland has.

It would be interesting to know what the yearly maintenance costs were for the old system.

The story has the strong odor of Admiral Randy about it.

Sounds like another water/sewer rate hike in one of the near futures.

Why is JIm Karlock the only person who goes after these people?

I have used both systems. The old system was simple and easy to use. You could use a few commands for basic functions or revert to f keys for forms. The problem with the old system is that it functioned on radio frequencies. Radio is not idea for transmitting large amounts of data -think watermelon trying to pass through a straw.

The new system is form driven. There are no simple commands. For each query, users must hit a series of drop down menus to reach the needed form. Instead of six keys strokes, an user needs a minimum of twelve.

Next, the font is ten point and thin. It is hard to read with good vision. Imagine trying to read the screen in a bouncing car.

The previous system had a single screen that users could toggle back and forth throughout new and old information.

The new screen has a minimum of three sub-screens in small font to try to read.

On the new system, it is easier to log on and initiate calls. The call screen refreshes every 180 seconds, so users do not have to manually hunt for calls and unit availability.

However, call information is harder to find and read. Calls do not update well. Case numbers and information does not automatically attach to a call.

The map system does not work well.

It requires several keystrokes for dispatchers to find the actual close units to a call.

PFB does not have air cards causes more issues.

Finally, the system does not crash every night a midnight, but it has crashed four or five times when I have been using the system for about an hour a time.

I find the new CAD frustrating and overly complicated. It fails the KIS rule.

Jack -

I could be wrong and assignments may have changed, but last I looked in January, 2011 Emergency Communications was in Commissioner Fritz' portfolio.

Along with Portland Office of Emergency Management. Parts of POEM ae a eal mess.

There is a certain logic / symmetry to having both Emergency Communications and Emergency Management reporting to the same Commissioner under Portland's odd system of management by legislators.

That system, of having Commissioners / Councilors managing various Bureaus, is, IMHO, amazingly silly, though.

A reader identifying himself as Jim Churchill, a retired systems analyst for the City of Portland Bureau of Emergency Communications, has sent us this troubling report:

Needed is a retired Portland Water Bureau staff to send troubling reports from the bureau!

We know they are in debt and are making matters more difficult for citizens to get information.

I could be wrong and assignments may have changed

Randy was commissioner when this thing was being hatched:


Which enterprising relative of a city commissioner is married to the owner of the consulting firm? I have no insider knowledge other than recognizing how contracts are awarded in this province.

This sounds like a Portland solution to me - take a perfectly good and functional computer system, that was paid for long ago, and replace it with a really expensive system that is kludgy and cumbersome to use. makes perfect sense.

Portland could have upgraded their old system for $500,000 and kept using it for another 10 years. That's what Lake Oswego did - with the exact same system. But why spend only $500,000 when you can spend $16,500,000 instead? If you are a Portland Commissioner, the choice is obvious.

The COP is technologically challenged and has been for a long time. So is MultCo and I have known IT folks who worked at both places in the past. However, the folks in charge must love whatever wining, dining, and wooing the vendors involved do. And making bad decisions about system implementations is kind of a running joke in this city.

According to some Public Safety folks this is just the tip of the ice berg. The cost over runs and undisclosed future costs are going to be staggering.

With all the problems that COP has had in the past, costing the taxpayers millions of dollars, makes one wonder how you can have commissioners, who for the most part have never managed as much as a lemon aide stand be put in charge of multi million dollar bureaus who then hire incompentent managers can this City, County survive?

Jack -

Thanks for the update. Planned when Leonard was the Commissioner in Charge before 2008, and before Fritz was on the City Council, implemented after she was elected while Fritz was "in charge".


I would take the contents of this blog with a grain of salt considering the information came from a disgruntled ex-city employee whose pet project was the City's old CAD system.

If you're looking for factual unbiased information about the new system, you won't find it here.

If you've drank this guy's koolaide and noticed the faint aroma of organic fertilizer . . . there is still hope for you.

Too funny -- "Ishmael" is posting from:
IP Location: United States United States
Portland City Of Portland
ASN: AS12102
Resolve Host: 172.152.ptldnet.portlandoregon.gov
IP Address:
NetRange: -
OriginAS: AS12102
NetHandle: NET-74-120-152-0-1
Parent: NET-74-0-0-0-0
NetType: Direct Assignment
RegDate: 2009-12-10
Updated: 2009-12-10
Ref: http://whois.arin.net/rest/net/NET-74-120-152-0-1

Another clue:

IP Address 74.120.152.# (Rogers Cable)
ISP Rogers Cable
Continent : North America
Country : Canada (Facts)
State/Region : Ontario
City : Newmarket
Lat/Long : 44.05, -79.45 (Map)

Ismael- believe me it is just the tip of the ice berg. Try asking the Police chief's of Fairview, Troutdale and the County Sheriefs office. Not sure about Gresham because the Mayor went in and made a deal with Amanda. So far Gresham has not said what back room deal was made. But it will be to Greshams benefit not the other East Countie Cities, or citizens .

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