A recent Kalispell budget workshop revealed a host of problems some city officials have with the nearly one-year-old Flathead 911 Emergency Communications Center, from disputes over equipment contracts to complaints by some emergency personnel that they feel “unsafe” due to recurrent dispatch issues.
Public safety officials, even those with criticisms, are broadly supportive of the changes achieved by the 911 center, while acknowledging it remains a work in progress. And those interviewed for this story emphasized that public safety has never been compromised. But the issues raised by Kalispell demonstrate the difficulty of establishing a unified, far-reaching emergency communications system.
Kalispell’s single largest budget increase for the upcoming fiscal year is the additional $106,709 it must pay as its share of the 911 center. Since recent Census data show Kalispell’s population has increased, its share of the 911 center’s operational cost – which it pays along with Flathead County, Whitefish and Columbia Falls – has grown accordingly. During a May 9 work session on the budget, however, Kalispell officials and council members launched into a discussion of the various frustrations they have had since the 911 center began operating last June.
Kalispell Fire Chief Dan Diehl described the occasional but persistent difficulty of pinpointing 911 callers’ locations by dispatchers – an issue that existed prior to the construction of the 911 center.
“When they send us the wrong address and they have no idea where the caller is,” Diehl said. “They’re continually having the same problems over and over and over.”
“We’ve got to be able to get some correction in what goes on at that center. It’s not getting better,” he added.
Diehl also expressed frustration that Kalispell Fire has moved to digital radio channels, while rural departments remain on analog channels, resulting in communications issues.
“We have a fire with Evergreen (Fire Rescue) and we have three departments on three different channels,” Diehl said. “It’s an absolute mess.”
Kalispell Police Chief Roger Nasset said his department has had better results, but mentioned incidents when officers were sent to scenes where the dispatcher was informed of weapons involved, and failed to inform the responding officers of that crucial information.
City Manager Jane Howington said some employees have stopped returning complaint cards to the 911 center because they don’t receive a response.
“We have been put on notice by our people on the front line that they are unsafe and feeling unsafe,” Howington said. “Many of them believe that we are turning a blind eye to them.”
Howington and Mayor Tammi Fisher also discussed potentially expensive commitments, like the Interoperability Montana program, which aimed to establish a communications program linking law enforcement to government agencies. The program basically ceases to exist in June, which could obligate local governments to maintain expensive radio equipment in remote mountain locations.
“It kind of becomes a running faucet that we can’t control in any way,” Fisher said. “We are well beyond what it costs us to run our own 911 center for our own service.”
In an interview last week, Diehl voiced an additional concern: Some agencies are now learning that features proposed in the center’s computer aided dispatch system (CAD), that many thought were contained in the contract, apparently are not. In the case of Kalispell Fire, the department bought computer equipment anticipating a program called Fire Mobile would be a feature of the CAD. The program allows firefighters to use laptops in their trucks while heading to an incident to learn information about their destination – like the owner of a business and quickest route.
Kalispell purchased 10 laptops, at a cost of roughly $50,000, according to Diehl, to use with the Fire Mobile program, which he said was part of the CAD request for proposal when it was being sold by New World Systems, but was dropped out of the contract at some point: “We’ve got laptops sitting in a box and they can’t connect to anything.”
“That’s all just coming out now, we’ve been into this process about a year,” he added. “To find out it’s not even in the project, it’s like, ‘Wow,’ – that was a major factor of what the CAD was supposed to do.”
ONE YEAR IN
Despite any criticisms, however, everyone interviewed for this story credited those running the 911 center for taking pains to integrate, over the last year, the various dispatch centers and protocols of rural fire districts, cities and the county into one system. The magnitude of that endeavor was on display last week as Scott Sampey, director of the Office of Emergency Services, was monitoring the Flathead’s gradually increasing flood conditions. On a walk through the 911 center he pointed out the high-tech capabilities of the facility.
“We probably have the state-of-the-art system in the whole state,” Sampey said. “Other counties are calling us to see what we’re doing.”
The 911 center’s proposed operations budget for the fiscal year beginning in July is proposed at $2,683,926. That’s up from this year’s budget, which should come in at $2,452,029, running a deficit of about $100,000, according to Sampey. Those dollars come from the three Flathead cities, the county and revenues from the 911 tax on phone bills.
Sampey said the first year budget was in some ways a guess at the costs. Veteran dispatchers were hired with their existing wages and benefits. Contractors were necessary to get the equipment up and running. Unemployment insurance was unexpectedly high.
The center’s administrative board, comprised of representatives from all paying entities, approves its budget. No 911 center employees are receiving raises next year, and the number of FTEs (the equivalent of a full-time employee) will remain at 35, though some job openings for dispatchers are currently open. But as warranties on the equipment begin to expire, costly maintenance agreements must be entered into, like the $140,000 necessary for updates and maintenance on the CAD.
“We’re trying to more accurately reflect where we should be,” Sampey said. “Stuff has to be upgraded, fixed, updated.”
As for some of the complaints related to delays or communication with dispatch, Sampey acknowledged there have been errors, which is only natural considering the massive volume of calls coming through the center. Between January and April of this year, the center received 54,881 calls. Out of those, 8,931 were emergencies, while the other 45,950 were “administrative,” or non-emergencies.
Sampey also attributed some of the issues mentioned by Kalispell officials to the challenges of weighing what preferences one department may have against a system that works best for all. Each department has their own “run cards” specifying the order and circumstances in which other emergency personnel should be called in, and dispatchers must accommodate each. In the case of digital channels, the rural fire departments are waiting for any “kinks to work out before they switch,” Sampey said.
“That is something we as a group are taking control of,” he added. “We’re trying to use the best system for everybody.”
Dispatchers undergo rigorous training for a complex, high-pressure job it can take months to fully learn, and Sampey noted retention has been improving. In the cases of people calling 911 from cell phones, dispatchers can usually pinpoint the call, but if the signal is coming from one of the phone company’s older towers with an older phone, it still may not be possible based purely on signal.
Sampey conceded that maintaining the equipment purchased with grant money through the Interoperability Montana program will have to be paid for by the counties that use it.
“If ever that system has a failure, it affects us,” he said. “Once summer comes we’ll want to replace a lot of this equipment.”
As for provisions that may have been left out of the contract with New World Systems, the software provider for the CAD, Sampey said the county is unlikely to enter formal arbitration over the elements many thought would be part of the contract, but that talks continue about programs like Fire Mobile.
“Unfortunately, that wasn’t a part of it,” Sampey said. “We believe it should have been in there.”
Issues stemming from the 911 center seem isolated primarily to Kalispell.
Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry is satisfied: “Certainly there are still issues, but I don’t think any of them are insurmountable or pose any huge threat to public safety,” he said. “It’s where we expected it would be.”
Whitefish Police Chief Bill Dial, who chairs the 911 center’s operations board, agreed.
“Any time you undertake a large endeavor like this there are going to be growing pains,” Dial said. “We have a much better system than we had in the past.”
Mayor Tammi Fisher acknowledged Kalispell may be the only one finding fault with the center, but as her city’s share of the facility’s cost increases, she feels the council bears a responsibility to ensure “we’re getting a commensurate return of service.”
“I think that there should probably be more of an open dialogue with the 911 center with these complaints,” she added. “I’ve got to be able to justify these expenses to the extent possible.”
And there Sampey agrees, making a meeting between 911 center employees and Kalispell officials likely in the near future.
“I think some of their goals can be accomplished here,” Sampey said. “They’re an owner of this system.”
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