With $10M spent, delays mar update to emergency system

EVERETT — An ambitious overhaul of Snohomish County’s emergency dispatch systems’ communications software is set to go live later this year.

Maybe. At least two go-live dates — in 2011 and 2012 — have come and gone, hindered by repeated delays and disputes.

With more than $10 million in public money already spent, those involved still aren’t sure when the service will be up and running.

Working with Michigan software company New World Systems, the objective is to link communication systems used by police, fire and corrections officials.

Three emergency dispatch centers are involved. These are:

  • SNOPAC, serving Everett and most of central, eastern and northern Snohomish County.
  • SNOCOM, serving southwest Snohomish County.
  • NORCOM, serving northeast King County, including the Bothell firefighters.

To date, SNOPAC and SNOCOM don’t yet have software they can use, but they say they’re close.

NORCOM’s software works for King County police but with some lingering problems.

For fire dispatch, NORCOM has given up on the New World and hired another vendor. NORCOM and New World are headed to mediation next month.

SNOCOM just recently resolved a dispute with New World that otherwise would have gone to mediation.

New World Systems, based in Troy, Mich., has been developing public-safety software for more than 25 years, said Craig Bickley, senior vice president of sales operations.

Bickley declined to be interviewed for this story, but provided a prepared statement in an email.

The company has completed hundreds of successful projects across the U.S., and its values include stability, growth and innovation, he wrote.

“New World has a policy to not comment on active projects while they are in progress, but we look forward to our continued work and long-term relationships with the agencies in Snohomish and King Counties,” Bickley wrote.

In Snohomish County, New World wanted SNOCOM to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual maintenance fees.

SNOCOM’s board refused. They weren’t interested in paying fees for software they didn’t have and weren’t using, Executive Director Debbie Grady said.

In a settlement earlier this month, SNOCOM and New World agreed that SNOCOM’s maintenance fees for 2012, 2013 and 2014 would be lowered.

“We saved roughly $350,000 in hard money,” Grady said.

They also agreed to extend the contract to cap costs for another year and a half, into June 2019. SNOPAC previously negotiated a similar reduction in fees.

The way it’s supposed to work, New World software would be used as the computer-communication system for police, firefighters, dispatchers, corrections and support staff. Local agencies asked New World to improve the software as part of their contracts.

Those improvements and additions have contributed to the delays. For example, if there were a fire that needed crews to respond from both north county and south county, New World would automatically dispatch them. The current system requires a phone call between the dispatch centers because they do not share a computer connection.

The goal was to save millions of dollars by working with the vendor on needed changes, said Greg Lineberry, an Everett police captain who until recently served on the SNOPAC board.

Before going with New World, the board looked at custom software that would have cost a lot more, SNOPAC Executive Director Kurt Mills said.

“We don’t want to roll it out to everyone until we know it’s ready,” he said. “Obviously the project has taken longer than we anticipated.”

Documents show that conversations about the need for a new system started as far back as 2007.

SNOPAC’s board members say they are optimistic that New World will bring them into the future. Some of the technology set to be replaced is from the 1980s and 1990s.

It works, but it’s limited. For example, the current computer system can’t send a photo of a suspect to a police officer in a patrol car.

The current system functions like “an old fax machine,” said Steve Guptill, the assistant fire chief in Monroe who’s worked on the New World project and now serves as the SNOPAC board chairman.

There’s also limited communication between the county’s different dispatch centers. For example, an officer in Everett who was checking a suspect’s name in his computer wouldn’t automatically be notified if that man had become violent with Lynnwood police a few days before.

The current systems aren’t even Windows-based or controlled by computer mouse clicks, Lineberry said.

“It’s an extremely slow, inefficient, dated process,” he said.

Officers must manually type or handwrite multiple copies of reports, such as jail booking forms or arrest paperwork. The New World software upgrade would automatically share the same filled-out form with the jail and with the officer’s supervisor.

Creating a regional system to share data and records was a major undertaking, Grady said. It made sense for everyone in the county to work together.

“This was a very visionary project to take on,” she said.

Despite the delays, some police and fire departments have bought equipment, such as laptops, to accommodate the new software. Some of those purchases became obsolete due to the delays and advancements in technology, said Mill Creek Police Chief Bob Crannell, who serves on the SNOCOM board.

SNOCOM talked to lawyers and state auditors before deciding to question New World Systems about paying the maintenance fees, Crannell said.

“These are taxpayer dollars,” he said. “You would not pay maintenance on a car you had not bought. We’re going to hold New World to the terms of the contract.”

Software delivery dates have been missed, and SNOCOM has received software and updates of lower quality than they expected, Grady said. The project at times has been “one step forward, two steps back,” she said.

The newest versions of the software arrived in late 2013, and tests earlier this month showed some positive results, said Terry Peterson, the SNOCOM information services manager.

A complete start-up now is expected later this year.

Before that happens, though, up to 3,000 public-safety employees throughout Snohomish County need to be trained. That could take up to six months.

Meanwhile, at NORCOM, south of the county line, a version is up and running for King County police.

“There are a significant number of defects that we are still looking to be fixed and a significant number of requirements that have yet to be delivered,” NORCOM Executive Director Tom Orr said. “There continues to be significant development issues.”

NORCOM has selected a new vendor for a dispatching system for firefighters and emergency medical services, Orr said. NORCOM also sent New World a notice of default.

“The fire community that is served by NORCOM has lost complete trust and confidence in New World, and largely that’s because of problems with police (software), and the delay,” Orr said.

NORCOM has paid substantial maintenance fees but didn’t pay for 2013, Orr said. Arguments over those payments likely will be part of the mediation, tentatively set for February.

NORCOM’s initial contract with New World was worth about $3.8 million, Orr said. NORCOM’s leaders hope some money will be returned. The argument hasn’t affected Bothell police, who operate their own dispatch system.

Officials in Snohomish County also considered canceling the project and finding another vendor, Grady said.

However, that would have meant forfeiting the millions already spent, and tossing out the extensive staff hours invested, Crannell said.

“We’re paying a lot of money for it, but we’re always going to demand that the product performs to the degree that we’re paying for,” Crannell said.

It makes sense to let New World finish development, Grady said. Doing otherwise also could rack up expensive legal bills.

“We think we’re almost there, so why not stick it out?” she said.

In addition, the older, existing system has huge maintenance costs, Lineberry said. Unlike some vendors, New World doesn’t charge for routine updates.

“It’s been a long haul to get to this point,” Lineberry said.

The software project, whenever it wraps up, should make police officers, firefighters and the public safer, Crannell said. Emergency communication will be more efficient, modern and comprehensive, he said.

“It will be a good thing for this county for a long, long time,” he said.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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