Eastside Fire & Rescue, dispatcher improve relationship

September 4, 2012

By Caleb Heeringa

Despite grumbling in the past year that Eastside Fire & Rescue may look at other options for its fire dispatching service, Chief Lee Soptich said the agency will likely stay with Bellevue-based NORCOM.

Lee Soptich

Earlier this year Soptich had talked with other agencies — namely Kent-based ValleyCom and the Seattle Fire Department — about dispatching for EFR after frustrations with NORCOM’s delayed software upgrade. The new system, a joint police and fire dispatching and record keeping program dubbed New World, launched in September 2011 but had to be taken offline after just 16 days due to multiple failures.

Because of the crash, EFR crews operated for several months without the “automatic vehicle locator” function in their dispatching system, which tracks individual units and ensures that a fire crew out and about in the community would be automatically alerted to a nearby call. Soptich said there hadn’t been any deadly consequences and NORCOM has since been able to regain the locator function in its previous software system. But after repeated delays and promises, Soptich said EFR is looking for tangible results in the new system in the coming months.

“We’re intent on watching this closely,” Soptich said. “We can’t afford to continue to see problems with our (dispatch) system. (New World) really needs to wow us.”

Officials at NORCOM, a consortium of cities and fire districts that coordinates emergency response for 14 fire districts and five police departments from Shoreline to North Bend, have been working closely with New World software developers to fix the bugs in the system since the botched launch.

If successful, the new software would be one of the more integrated and state-of-the-art dispatching systems in the area. Maps and fire response plans for large commercial buildings that are right now kept on paper in binders and relayed via radio to responding units could be digitized and automatically show up on the computer screen inside a fire truck, for example.

The agency is methodically ironing out the kinks in the program and is hoping to have the system operational sometime in 2013, according to Pam Bissonnette, interim director. Even when the system is up and running, NORCOM will have to ensure that more than 1,000 firefighters and police officers are trained on the new system.

“You can imagine what kind of undertaking it would be to train that many people on a new system,” she said.

Soptich said he’s been pleased with the forward progress he’s seen in the agency this year. The agency’s board of directors passed a labor agreement with its dispatchers — the first in the three-year history of NORCOM — which has helped ensure stability and continuity, something Soptich said has been a problem in the past.

But EFR was the lone dissenting vote on that labor contract, due to concerns over the cost of employee medical benefits. Under the agreement, Bissonnette said NORCOM covers all increases in health care premiums up to 20 percent year over year — anything above that is split between the agency and the employee.

EFR, funded by tax dollars from Issaquah, Sammamish, North Bend and King County fire districts 10 and 38, paid approximately $487,000 for dispatching services in 2012 and expects that to rise by about 9 percent in 2013. The NORCOM bill makes up less than 5 percent of the agency’s operating costs.

Bissonnette said NORCOM looked at wages and benefits for surrounding dispatch centers and found that its dispatchers were “right in the middle of the market” under the new agreement.

Soptich said EFR officials had a hard time stomaching those sorts of potential cost increases, particularly since EFR’s share of premium increases is capped at 6 percent, with the employee covering the rest.

“It’s not a huge dollar figure, but it’s kind of a philosophy of ours — it’s hard for us to agree to things that we can’t afford for all our employees,” Soptich said.

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