CHARLES TOWN – Are Jefferson County’s 911 fire emergency dispatches delayed too long because of software modifications that should have been made years ago?
Or are those software program adjustments—which would customize dispatch instructions to improve local emergency routing response times—too technically complicated to implement?
A veteran Jefferson County fire chief, Ross Morgan, and a former emergency services board chairman, Elliot Simon, believe the changes are important, doable and overdue.
Frustrated and outspoken about how long the issue has lingered, Morgan said failing to finish the programming could lead to a fire getting out of control that could have been otherwise contained.
Given a particular scenario or circumstance, the lives of firefighters or county residents could be put at risk because of it, he said.
“It’s not being fixed in a timely fashion at all, and I don’t understand why,” said Morgan, who has detailed, firsthand knowledge of firefighting systems, processes and protocols extending over five decades. “It’s been going on for at least three to four years, and the biggest thing is the time it takes to dispatch for what I call a structural-type fire.”
“The more units that are required for a particular call, it takes longer and it takes at least 3, 3 1/2 minutes to process a call when it should only take a minute, minute and a half—tops,” he said.
“Two minutes of burn time, especially in today’s new houses, it’s very significant,” he pointed out.
Meanwhile, Jefferson County Commissioner Jane Tabb, although she has no software programming expertise, has examined the issue up close while serving for years on the county’s public safety boards. She doubts the reprogramming can be carried out easily or practically.
And there’s apparently nothing typical or standard about the software system modifications Morgan and other county fire chiefs are asking for, Tabb said.
“I think what Mr. Morgan wants is not possible with the system we have,” she said. “I know it has been thoroughly researched. It’s a complex issue. There’s no easy answers.”
The issue is so black-box-driven that not everyone in the firefighting community has as strong an opinion as Morgan. But fire officials broadly agree that saving seconds, let alone minutes, can save property and lives—those of firefighters and residents—when fighting building fires.
“We have a lot of new construction—a lot of lightweight construction,” explained said Bob Faas, a longtime career firefighter and the current chairman of the Jefferson County Emergency Services Agency, the agency that manages the county’s fire and medical emergency responders. “And fire spread doubles in size every minute.”
About four years ago, the county purchased a so-called Computer-Aided Dispatch or CAD system from Spillman Technologies. The Salt Lake City, Utah, company sells automated dispatching systems used by thousands of local emergency communication centers across the country.
The system allows 911 operators to systematically route police, medical and fire emergency calls to the appropriate public safety agency and responder.
Law enforcement officials aren’t concerned that police calls are hindered over how the Spillman dispatching system is designed or operated, said Ranson Police Chief Robbie Roberts. The system is working smoothly, efficiently and rapidly for police calls, he said.
Other police officials expressed the same view in the past.
The nine-member Jefferson County E9-1-1 Advisory Board that monitors the operations of the county’s 911 communications center in Kearneysville includes four police chiefs and officers.
Morgan said past issues with slower dispatching of emergency medical calls appear to have improved if not resolved.
What Morgan has been requesting—and, as a longtime member and current president of Jefferson County Fire and Rescue Association, with the backing of the county’s volunteer fire and medical rescue chiefs—has not been resolved, he said.
That request involves an intricate process the Spillman system directs involving how and when available firefighting equipment and rescue are sent to home or building fires. The diversely specialized equipment—ranging from engines, pumpers and ladder trucks—and the first responders who operate it are spread out across the county’s seven volunteer fire departments.
The Spillman system, Morgan said, uses a nationally generated database that is not always accurate or efficient in dispatching firefighters and their trucks and equipment to fire calls in Jefferson County. For example, for various reasons ranging from roadway routes to volunteer staffing, a fire station located closer to a fire might not be able to respond to the fire quicker than another station.
Morgan said the county’s fire chiefs have been asking to incorporate localized instructions or protocols into the Spillman dispatching system to make automated responses controlled by 911 operators more accurate and efficient—and faster.
Morgan acknowledges that the details—a combination of intricate firefighting protocols and technical computer programming specifically for the Spillman system (later bought by Motorola) the county purchased—are complicated. But the chief said his knowledge and experience with how other counties develop and use similar systems shows the changes could have and should have been made by now.
Morgan estimated that Jefferson County has spent as much as $70,000 attempting to customize the dispatching system, an effort still not finished. Attempts have been made, but the project has never have fulfilled the project, he said.
“There’s reason in the world why this program cannot work,” Morgan said. “There’s no reason why this thing has gone on for so long and cost so much money. … Someone should be able to get the system to work a lot better than it does right now.”
Last summer Simon finished a maximum six-year volunteer stint serving on the county’s Emergency Services Agency. He also has a professional background in managing logistical operations, including overseeing high-volume call centers. He said he visited the county’s emergency communications center in Kearneysville to learn how the dispatch system works. He said he also made a similar visit to Loudoun County’s communications center.
And Simon said he strongly agrees with Morgan’s assessment.
Last week Simon spoke out publicly and bluntly before the Jefferson County Commission to warn that he believes with Morgan that the never implemented programming adjustments are putting lives and property at more risk. He said emergency responses are being delayed longer than necessary.
Simon told the commission that the 911 software system can and should be adapted to the county’s needs as defined by its fire chiefs. “I know how these processes work,” he offered. “The processes we have in place are not adequate, and it’s a real problem, and at some point it’s going to erupt into a really—a disaster, in my humble opinion.”
In the crosshairs of the criticism has stood Jeff Polczynski, who runs the county’s communication center in Kearneysville. Simon also took aim at county Administrator Stephanie Grove, accusing her of defending Polczynski’s handling of the still-unresolved project for too long.
“There needs to be an examination of the processes and the software,” Simon said. “That CAD system is capable of doing the job if we have proper management.”
On Tuesday, Polcynski said he didn’t know what Simon had said but would listen to his comments. Grove pointed out that most of a first-level programming projected involving 1.3 million data entries is complete.
Grove said remaining programming was taken on by county staff. The county will hire programmers to complete the last second-level step. She said she’s doesn’t know a time frame yet when that last step will be done, but that she should know within a couple of weeks.
She added that 911 operators will also have to trained how to dispatch fire calls once the newly programmed changes are implemented.
Grove pointed out that the “static response” programming fire chiefs are seeking will make the dispatch system operate with less dynamic functions than a more real-time, fluid dispatching information that Loudoun County accesses. Future updates to data that become outdated over time will also require about six months of work, she said.