New computer system going haywire for 911 dispatchers

Mike Koozmin/s.f. examiner file photoThe City’s Department of Emergency Management has issued new screening protocols for 911 dispatchers to help ensure first responders are informed of any potential Ebola symptoms.

Any given day, a room full of dispatchers in front of computer bays in Hayes Valley act as the brains, the communication center and the backup for every police officer, firefighter and ambulance crew in San Francisco.

But since Wednesday, that system had been short-circuiting at The City's dispatch center and is making San Francisco's emergency dispatchers very unhappy — and frightened.

That's because of a new $3.7 million, computer-aided dispatch system that went online last week and, depending on whom you talk to, is having minor to serious glitches.

“I can tell you this: I would be scared as a citizen to dial 911 the way we are with the system,” dispatcher Mark Terris said of the new system.

The Department of Emergency Management, which operates the dispatch center, admitted that the new system — replaced because the older system's software couldn't be updated — has some glitches to work out.

Still, said Francis Zamora, spokesman for the department, the glitches are not impacting emergency services in San Francisco. The department extensively tested the system — running 50,000 test calls on it — and took care to train staff, he said

“It's pretty much as expected,” Zamora said. “There have been some minor glitches, but they haven't affected emergency services.”

But dispatchers aren't so sure, worrying the glitches could endanger officers and citizens.

“We are concerned for the safety of the units in the field,” said 10-year veteran dispatcher Joan Vallarino, who is one of the 120 dispatchers dealing with the new system and its rollout.

The dispatchers field an average of 2,800 calls a day for 911, which does not include dispatch emergency communications with first responders.

Numerous dispatchers who spoke with The San Francisco Examiner said the new system and difficulties with the changeover could be endangering police in the field. Without accurate and prompt access to crucial information, such as criminal backgrounds and license plate histories, officers responding to a call could be forced into dangerous situations blind.

Police Officer Albie Esparza acknowledged that officers in the field are having issues with the new system. Officers who can't access needed information about a call from their computers, for instance, must rely on radio communication instead, meaning that the airwaves are tied up more than normal.

“That's a pretty significant issue because the officers essentially don't know where they are going, what the call's about, unless they write it down on paper,” Esparza said.

“This system would work fine if we lived in Kansas, but we live in San Francisco and it's not built for speed,” said Terris, noting the cumbersome nature of the new system. “Everything we used to do in one second now takes five extra steps.”

Dispatchers also say the department did a poor job of rolling out the first new dispatch system in 14 years.

“Once again, management has poorly executed this,” Vallarino said.

Staffing, which she said is already low, was not increased during some of the training. She said staffing problems also increase the wait for 911 calls.

What's more, many emergency service workers in the field have not been trained for the new system, dispatcher Elaine Aniano said.

“It's a nightmare, it's an operational nightmare,” she said. “People are gonna get hurt. I'm scared.”

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