New CAD System Is a Disaster Waiting to Happen?
A new computer-aided dispatch program or CAD program has had numerous problems with delays, failed messages and poor design with computer screens at the Northwest Central Dispatch System (NWCDS) dispatch center and at the computer terminals in the police cars and fire, rescue, and paramedic rigs. Police and fire personnel on the street and dispatchers in the 9-1-1 center in Arlington Heights have been struggling with issues with the computer aided dispatch since late April, 2012. The software installed on April 24, 2012 replaced a previous CAD software system that was installed by Northrup Grumman.
Emergency 9-1-1 dispatchers now use the Ohio-based ID Networks CAD software to transfer information from 911 calls into the computer, and send the data to 21 police and fire departments within 12 member communities, including Arlington Heights, Buffalo Grove, Elk Grove Village, Hoffman Estates, Inverness, Mount Prospect, Palatine, Prospect Heights (police only), Rolling Meadows, Schaumburg, and Streamwood.
Since the ID Networks software was implemented, firefighters and especially police officers have reported problems. Police communications are much more data intensive than fire and paramedic communications, so there are many more nagging issues with police communications. However, fire department communications also involve critical life safety issues. Issues that cause delays with fire departments are probably more likely to cause a high profile failure that would be recognized by the public.
A failure of communications last Sunday (July 8, 2012) with a medical emergency call involving a potential heart attack victim, brought the issues to the attention of the Daily Herald community on Tuesday evening. A problem with software at the dispatch center on Sunday caused a 14-minute delay in response to the Palatine call. The incident was particularly serious Sunday because dispatchers weren’t getting the audible and/or visual indicators of messages sent from the call takers. It is likely that a message from the call taker to the dispatcher was not received and/or the dispatch from NWCDS to Palatine failed. When both sides realized that a call had not been dispatched, personnel responded to radio communications on their portable handheld radios. The 14-minute delay was well beyond the 6-minute response guideline required of emergency medical service providers. One of the best tests of an emergency medical system is how many “saveable” victims of sudden cardiac arrest it actually saves. Patients in cardiac arrest must be reached and shocked with a defibrillator within six minutes, or they almost always die. Fortunately the medical emergency was not life threatening, and the victim is in stable condition at the hospital.
NWCDS finalized the agreement with ID Networks in January of 2008.
“Our technical advisory group voted unanimously to proceed with the ID Networks mobile client software because of its advanced mobile features and the ability to interface with Northrop Grumman’s CAD software. Other contributing factors for selecting ID Networks were the embedding of Radio IP technology into the mobile applications, to allow seamless roaming through RF, Cellular, and Wi-Fi networks, along with the advanced integration of DDTI interactive, mobile mapping within the mobile client.”
— Cindy Barbera-Brelle, Executive Director for Northwest Central (quoted in ID Network press release)
NWCDS has been plagued with delays, and systemic software problems as well as human-machine interface problems since the software was installed. The problems with the software are causing problems daily. Many times the CAD software has had to be taken offline to update the software. Other times the software has just plain crashed. The software has also been updated at critical time periods, such as 3:00 p.m. on a Friday when incident traffic is high, instead of, for example 3:00 a.m., when incident traffic is low, and the process would be less likely to interfere with multiple calls and emergency operations. Police officers frequently report to dispatchers that their screen is updating, and they add “whatever that means” in their statement to the dispatchers.
Screens at the dispatch center are actually confusing for the dispatchers. Citizens have called 9-1-1 to report emergencies and have reported to The Cardinal that they were met with periods of silence while the call takers were taking the emergency calls. The periods of silence occurred because the dispatchers were confused and preoccupied with understanding the computer screen or controlling the computer to give it commands. The dispatch center also requires its dispatchers to enter data before dispatching calls. The Cardinal has monitored situations when it takes more than one minute for an ambulance to be dispatched after police officers request an ambulance. First hand, The Cardinal has monitored a situation when a crime in-progress call took over one minute for police officers to be updated on offender movement following the second call by the citizen. These times are much longer compared to similar situations monitored with RED Center, which handles requests almost instantaneously when a fire rig requests an ambulance or an upgraded fire response. RED Center is a fire dispatch center that serves Long Grove, Glenview, Northbrook, Prospect Heights, and several other north shore suburbs. The delay at NWCDS is caused by procedures that require dispatchers to enter data before getting the equipment out the door. The recent software installation from ID Networks has even slowed down that data entry procedure.
Residents that have called 9-1-1 have also noticed problems with the service. At least two residents just north of Recreation Park reported to The Cardinal that 9-1-1 calls went unanswered during a transformer problem in the 400 block of North Belmont Avenue. Apparently, there was no call overload, such as would be caused by severe weather during the incident. Customer service from call takers has also shown signs of breaking down below the usual excellent performance. One Arlington Heights resident reported they called 9-1-1 to report a “homeless person” that crashed on their bike, and that was bleeding in the street. The 9-1-1 call taker replied, “How do you know they’re homeless?”
The ID Networks software proposal was filled with plenty of bells and whistles, but the basics for public safety have fallen far short of expectations for a Computer Aided Dispatch system. According to the January 2008 press release and Doug Blenman, Jr., the Product Manager for ID Networks; the ID Networks new ID Mobile client software will provide police officers on the Northwest Central Dispatch System with a single mobile desktop that includes online integration to their current Northrup Gruman CAD system, inquires (sic) to Illinois LEADS, online wireless access to their local RMS data, AVL, in-car interactive mapping, mobile messaging, mobile access to pre-plans, and inter-agency chat. In addition, our seamless integration with each agency’s mobile RMS field reporting enhances officer efficiency immensely by eliminating double typing for traffic tickets, IOR reports, and accident reports. This is all done while using state-specific form-on-screen applications.”
As part of the mobile solution, NWC field officers will not be disrupted in their applications as they roam through various types of wireless coverage, with the need to manually re-establish their VPN connections. The ID Mobile client software will intuitively provide maximum bandwidth utilization, through the use of advanced wireless communications software tools from Radio IP, which also provide advanced compression and secured encryption to insure Illinois LEADS and CJIS Security Policy guidelines.
— ID Networks press release (March 3, 2008)
According to a Daily Herald article (Software glitches delay 911 response in Northwest suburbs) NWCDS Executive Director Cindy Barbera-Brelle said Sunday was the first time there have been delays in responses to emergency calls since the new software went live.
Sunday’s incident in Palatine was not a one time ID Networks computer glitch. It was one of a series of daily problems that reared its ugly head and became obvious — out in the open. The problem is one of many categories of problems.
From radio chatter on the system between dispatchers and police and firefighter/paramedics, any listener can tell there are serious problems with the system. It is apparent from the system’s use and radio chatter that emergency personnel required to use the CAD software have lost confidence in its performance.
Some police officers have asked over the air, “what was the matter with the old system” or have sarcastically called the CAD software “this wonderful system.” The constant problems have definitely raised the temperature between emergency responders and the dispatchers, but they have still been the utmost professionals in stoically dealing with the day-to-day problems. It’s distracting to have a computer system that doesn’t work. Instead of working on the job of law enforcement, police officers are spending an inordinate amount of time and energy on IT (information technology) issues. Schaumburg police are constantly going in for help with their IT person at Schaumburg. Police from all communities were able to speak directly with ID Networks personnel as a hotline support group, because too many software failures and issues were being brought to the NWCDS dispatchers.
Firefighters in their stations have repeatedly told dispatchers they heard tones, but didn’t hear any voice message about details of the call. Many times they have thought they have a call, but they don’t have a call.
One night a police commander advised his officers that the CAD system was being rebooted, but warned them that the computer may have lost the last two hours of reports. He advised them that they might have to re-enter their information from the police calls they handled.
The Cardinal has been keeping a log of issues from radio traffic monitoring of Northwest Central Dispatch radio frequencies by The Cardinal since late April 2012 …
Problems reported via radio chatter between dispatchers, police officers, commanding officers and firefighter/paramedics.
1. Beeping on police computer terminals that won’t stop.
2. Updates on police incidents on computers in police cars go to wrong suburban police vehicle (e.g., Schaumburg getting an update for an Arlington Heights call).
3. Firefighters seeing incidents in their fire engine computers that don’t exist.
4. Police needing to refresh their computer screens with accompanying failure to see their incident information.
5. Computer screens in police cars endlessly updating (some screen updates have lasted over one hour).
6. Police car computers showing a message that the update was a “success”, but then the screens go blank.
7. Screens locking up and ‘freezing’ in police car computers.
8. Screens going blank.
9. Police officers unable to log in to their police car computer terminal with need to ask their dispatcher to log them in (many times this has occurred when when an emergency call has occurred during a shift change, and they have to jump in their car and go).
10. Police officers — upon completion of their shift — unable to log off of their police car computer terminal with the need to ask their dispatcher to log them off.
10. Messages from police car computer showing that the messages were sent and confirmed when the message were actually not sent.
12. False emergency signals on police car computer screens.
13. False information about the status of the police officer (e.g., whether the police officer is available or not).
14. Police beat car not being dispatched because the computer at the dispatcher end thought the beat car was not available. A police car further out is dispatched, and then the beat car officers asks why he was not dispatched.
15. Computer at the dispatch center showing that a fire vehicle or police vehicle is on a call that is not the call that they are handling.
The human-machine interface design of the software — both at the dispatch center and at the emergency vehicle terminals — is cluttered and poorly designed. One police officer pointed out that the “10-8” (in-service/available) button is right next to the EMERGENCY button on the police car’s computer terminal. That’s a sign that the software designers don’t understand human-machine interface guidelines or are very poor at designing it into their software. It’s very possible, while driving or multi-tasking, a police officer could accidentally hit the emergency button instead of the “10-8” button. In a more disastrous scenario, consider a police officer accidentally hitting the “10-8” instead of the EMERGENCY button seconds before he or she is shot.
Here is the report that was published on the Village of Buffalo Grove website after problems were recognized immediately after April 24, 2012. The overview also refers to new radios that will go live in the fourth quarter of 2012 or the first quarter of 2013 …
Village of Buffalo Grove Agenda Overview:
Police Status MDT, CAD and Radio program updates
Mobile Data Computers – Panasonic CF-31 Mobile Data Computers were installed in Police vehicles and Fire apparatus on April 23 and April 24. The installation process went smoothly with no unforeseen problems being encountered. The switch over was a demonstration of exceptional teamwork undertaken by staff, eliminating the need to hire an outside vendor to complete the installations.
Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) – The CAD GoLive occurred on April 24. A variety of problems were immediately identified and the system was taken out of service for several days. On April 27, the system was brought back on line. A number of technical and training issues persisted for several weeks during the switch over. The police department acted as a clearing house for a number of updates and changes designed to enhance system functionality.
At this time, the system is generally working as expected. Bugs continue to occur and are being addressed as they are identified. Some higher level software features have yet to be activated due to the number of technical issues that have been previously identified. Decisions made by staff, including the replacement of our Mobile Data Computers as approved by the Village Board prior to the CAD release, have allowed the Department to stay well ahead of other Northwest Central Dispatch agencies.
Radio System – The subscriber radios and accessories have been ordered. Motorola will be providing a ship date as soon as it is available. Northwest Central Dispatch is working with individual agencies on the template designs for Fire, Police and Public Works radios and will be scheduling a planning meeting with Chicago Communications to discuss programming the radios.
Northwest Central Dispatch continues to prepare the 10 sites for the installation of the system equipment. The microwave radios have been installed at four planned sites, including the Vernon Tower site located within the Village. System implementation is anticipated during the fourth quarter of 2012.
ID Networks management announced on March 3, 2008 that it signed a $1.3 million contract with Northwest Central Dispatch System for a “new Mobile client that would replace the current TX Messenger client software. The mobile client software will be deployed on 500 laptops and PC’s throughout 9 villages during the next 6 months. Villages include Arlington Heights, Buffalo Grove, Elk Grove Village, Hoffman Estates, Mount Prospect, Palatine, Prospect Heights, Schaumburg, and Streamwood.” Rolling Meadows probably wasn’t mentioned in the press release because their fire department wasn’t with NWCDS at that time. Inverness police did not begin service until May 1, 2009.
In a promotional video, Product Manager Doug Blenman states historical information at a particular call location is at the police officer’s fingertips to keep the police officer safer on the street.
The bottom line? The software at NWCDS is causing service delays and unnecessary headaches for public safety personnel. Computer software should be designed and implemented to help humans work more efficiently so their job performance improves for the actual job they’re supposed to do. It’s a stressful job because mistakes could result in the death of a citizen, police officer or firefighter. The job of dispatching emergency equipment and public safety personnel to a crime scene or fire or trauma scene involves getting important information from the public, deciding who and what equipment needs to go, and providing the public safety personnel with the information they need. It’s human beings — the dispatchers, the police officers, and firefighter/paramedics — that are making the system work in spite of the system being a failure. However, a computer system failure puts staff on edge, and decreases customer service to the citizens that need to call 9-1-1. Ironically, it’s the human workers — especially the dispatchers and call takers — that could be the scapegoats in a software system failure coverup.
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