EFR dispatch problems could slow response times

March 5, 2013

By Caleb Heeringa

Eastside Fire & Rescue has informed its dispatching service that it intends to look for another agency to handle its calls at the end of 2013 unless it sees significant progress on a long-delayed software upgrade.

EFR provides emergency fire and medical services of Issaquah, North Bend, Sammamish and fire districts 10 and 38.

Chief Lee Soptich said he informed Bellevue-based NORCOM, which coordinates emergency response for 14 fire districts and five police departments, of his intentions, following repeated delays in the implementation of a new computer system that’s been years in the making.

“I’m not convinced that there’s brighter things on the horizon,” he said. “It seems like every time we ask a question (about the new system), we hear, ‘We’re pretty close, we just need some more time.’”

The system in question, called New World, was originally supposed to launch in September 2011 but was taken offline after just 16 days. NORCOM officials say the new system would be one of the more cutting-edge in the nation, capable of instantly syncing police and fire units responding to an emergency.

Using the existing system, dispatchers must handle two different computer systems and relay information between police and fire units.

NORCOM Executive Director Tom Orr said the new system could make a big difference.

“Seconds count in public safety,” he said. “Anything we can do to cut down on that transfer time (between police and fire) is important.”

Soptich said the goals of the system are admirable, but the delays have been a hardship to EFR. The agency is still using its old dispatching system, but stopped keeping up on required maintenance and software upgrades because it expected New World to be in place 15 months ago.

Soptich said EFR is now looking at $180,000 worth of upgrades to the old system just to avoid a system crash — something that could lead to the wrong station responding to a fire call.

New World has been operating smoothly for the police departments dispatched through NORCOM, but bringing fire departments online has been a challenge. Orr said the organization always knew bringing police onto the system would be easier to do than fire departments. They now expect to have the system working by June.

Orr said EFR joins the Duvall and Snoqualmie Pass fire departments in indicating that it will look for other options for dispatching service due to the delays.

“I understand their positions,” he said. “They’re on tight budgets and they need to see some transition.”

But Soptich said there are not a lot of apparent options for another dispatching service. The Kent-based Valley Communications Center, which dispatches for fire agencies in Renton, Auburn and Maple Valley, has indicated that it is at capacity and would not be looking for new partners in the near future. Partnering with a smaller dispatch center, such as the Issaquah Police Department, would likely require a large investment in new software.

Soptich said he would prefer to stay with NORCOM if he sees tangible progress in the coming months, but he said he’s doing due diligence in looking at other options.

“This is one time when I’d love to be wrong,” he said.

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