The strain on public services caused by the region’s rampant growth was all too obvious at the May meeting of the Flathead City-County 911 Administrative Board, where some members railed against an emergency response system they said was dangerously antiquated, and questioned why the board, in recent months, can’t agree on a solution.
At issue is the inability of the current 911 system, in some instances, to locate calls coming from cell phones.
“As the chairman of the 911 board, I’m frustrated and so are a lot of members of the board,” Fred Leistiko, Kalispell airport manager, said later. “The system is not broken, but it’s bent really bad and it needs some work.”
Board members agree the Flathead Emergency Communications Center (FECC) dispatchers who take 911 calls are highly trained, hard-working, dedicated public servants and the technology they use needs updates and improvements.
But the agreement ends there, with board members differing on everything from the urgency and scope of the problem, to the formulation of a plan to deal with it.
When someone in Flathead County dials 911, their call goes to the FECC, which is located in the Sheriff’s Office and staffed around-the-clock by 19 dispatchers.
On a 911 call, the dispatcher sees a map of the caller’s location, their name and address, and the emergency services to notify in the area where the incident occurs. While the 911 dispatcher sends out medical and fire help anywhere in the county, the call center is not entirely consolidated; they must relay the caller’s information to another dispatcher at the proper law enforcement department.
The location of many cell phones doesn’t show up on the dispatch map, only the towers from which the signal is coming.
Kalispell City Fire Chief Randy Brodehl said this has made for confusion when 911 cell phone callers haven’t specified where they are, and dispatchers have accidentally sent help to the Kalispell Rosauer’s supermarket or the Kalispell Farm To Market Road, when the call was coming from Libby.
“Has that happened? Yes. Both of those instances? Yes,” Brodehl said.
The onslaught of summer tourists – many of whom have out-of-state area codes and may not know exactly where they are when they call 911 – compounds the problem.
Brodehl and other board members also criticized the outdated computer-aided dispatch system (CAD) used in the 911 center, which he said was donated by the city of Pittsburgh, Pa., in 1982.
“We are using a system that, in effect, is older than many of the firefighters who work for us in the department,” Brodehl added.
Flathead County Undersheriff Pete Wingert, who oversees the 911 call center, said software for the CAD has been rewritten and updated many times.
“It’s not like we’re using equipment from 1982,” Wingert said, emphasizing that many newer-model cell phones can be quickly located. “It’s not like we’re just pinning the tail on the donkey.”
That isn’t to say Flathead County doesn’t need an upgrade, Wingert added, “Would I like to have a new CAD? Absolutely.”
Most board members interviewed said Flathead needs to move toward a fully consolidated call center with a new computer system overseen, not by the Sheriff’s Office, but by a 911 dispatch coordinator with communications technology expertise.
“I think they are heroes,” board member Diane Smith said of the Sheriff’s Office, “but I think technology applications are a different discipline.”
The questions facing the board have resulted in months of indecision, like how much radio and telecommunications equipment Flathead County might gain from the Northern Tier Interoperability Project.
The federal Department of Homeland Security is administering the Montana Interoperability Project to improve radio and cellular communications across the state. The headquarters for the Northern Tier district of the state, which borders Canada, will be in Flathead County and Havre.
Many board members want to wait until it’s clear how much the federal government will pay to improve communications and radio technology before Flathead County invests in this area.
“We don’t know what we’re going to get from Northern Tier,” said Flathead County Commissioner Joe Brenneman, also on the 911 Board.
But Leistiko believes there is “a miscommunication as to what Northern Tier is going to provide,” and that it will be little more than some improvements to radio transmission towers and a better radio in the 911 center – not the new dispatch computer consoles some say could arrive.
Brodehl has also applied for $732,701 in firefighter assistance grants for a new 911 center CAD. He figures Flathead has a 10 to 15 percent chance of getting the grant, to be announced later this summer.
In light of these possibilities, the board voted this month to hold off on signing a contract for RCC Consultants Inc. of New Jersey to begin work on a business plan to consolidate and improve Flathead County’s 911 response system.
Some board members, including Brenneman, were “unimpressed” with RCC after a previous report on the 911 system which Brenneman said was rife with errors.
Brenneman decided to work up his own business plan and bring it to the June meeting.
Leistiko thinks Brenneman’s may not be the only plan put forth at the board’s next meeting.
“I just may have two proposals coming to us on that day, I don’t know,” Leistiko said.
In the meantime, some board members say all the talk of possibilities for what might happen down the road, have resulted in nothing happening at all.
“I’ve pretty much run out of patience with turf discussions and discussions about delay,” Smith said, “instead of conversations about what we’re going to do.”
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