Emergency dispatch software debuts with only minor glitches

EVERETT — So far, it’s working, and that’s a big relief.

Before dawn Tuesday, Snohomish County went live with new software for police, firefighters, 911 centers and jail staff.

The county’s emergency dispatchers had paper and pens handy Tuesday, an old-school backup system in case of catastrophic failure. Mill Creek Police Chief Bob Crannell and Everett Fire Chief Murray Gordon were among the many monitoring live updates on the installation from a command post in Everett. Roughly $6.8 million of public money has been spent on the project.

“The whole point of all of this is for everyone in Snohomish County, if you call 911, nothing is different today from yesterday,” sheriff’s spokeswoman Shari Ireton said.

Police and fire departments plugged into the new system, called New World, about 4 a.m.

By 6:40 a.m., dispatchers had used the system to send responders to unincorporated Lynnwood, where a woman in labor needed help.

Now, “we’re plus one” on New World, joked Rich McQuade, operations coordinator at SNOPAC, the emergency dispatch center based in Everett. He’s been working on the project for six years.

The roll-out was designed to happen in phases, he said. His spreadsheet showed more than 100 steps over the past few days, with more to go. The launch “was pretty much seamless,” he said.

The plan for Snohomish County to move to New World Systems software started around 2009. For years the project was plagued by delays and disputes. There even was discussion earlier this year of ditching New World altogether if a “lack of functionality,” as Gordon called it, continued. To add to the concerns, the Michigan-based New World company was recently sold, to the tune of $670 million.

SNOPAC was abuzz Tuesday with more than 30 representatives from New World at work. Extra teams of experts are scheduled to be on hand for days.

They planned for the launch just like they would any other major incident, said SNOPAC chairman Steve Guptill, also the assistant Monroe fire chief.

“If something happens, we have the right people here,” SNOPAC Executive Director Kurt Mills said Tuesday morning. “So far, nothing’s happened.”

Meanwhile, at SNOCOM, the dispatch center in Mountlake Terrace, supervisor Kim Crannell had trained on New World for more than 80 hours. Still, she prepared a backup system that she knew wouldn’t fail. On her desk Tuesday she’d placed different colored Legos on butcher paper, allowing her at a glance to see where fire trucks were deployed in case of trouble.

On her computer screen, New World software was performing as designed. She could see an Edmonds police car blinking on her screen as it traveled westward.

“Every time he moves, the map (on the screen) will move,” she said.

In addition, when SNOCOM and SNOPAC have to transfer 911 calls to each other, they’ll both already have access to the initial information from the caller, she said.

“The idea is we’re improving our overall response times for police and fire,” SNOCOM Executive Director Terry Peterson said. “It’s actually pretty exciting.”

Bugs on Tuesday included some firefighters getting logged out and needing their passwords reset. People still are learning how to use the interactive maps and to change their settings, so they’re not overwhelmed with information about surrounding agencies. Police officers were learning new shorthand codes for when they declare a false alarm or return to patrol.

Nearly every police officer and firefighter in Snohomish County is using the technology. The exceptions are the Washington State Patrol and the Bothell and Tulalip police departments, which run separate dispatch centers. If all goes as planned, emergency responders on New World should have better access to each other’s data, making them more efficient at getting people help and keeping them safe.

For example, the system sends fire trucks based on live GPS tracking, not the old way which was by fire station location.

Firefighters are getting used to the changes, Fire District 1 Capt. Chuck Maddox said.

“All our dispatch is completely different,” he said. “Are the bugs all worked out? Not by any means.”

His crews at Fire Station 19 in Mountlake Terrace were among those who had to reset their passwords. Maddox likes the ideas of the interactive maps, which can show him locations of fire hydrants, but he also is keeping close his trusty, 500-page folder of printed maps. Eventually, the computer maps may be updated to include building floor plans, electrical and gas shut-off spots, and other information that could come in handy during emergencies, he said.

On the police side of things, sheriff’s deputy Chris Veentjer used the new system Tuesday to show his partner they were headed to the same 911 call off Filbert Road, where a man had a question about a newly acquired gun safe. Earlier Tuesday, New World showed Veentjer he was the first to arrive at a Brier-area business where there was a theft to investigate.

“It is much more effective, immediate returns” of information, Veentjer said.

There were hiccups for jail staff but “nothing extraordinary,” sheriff’s corrections Lt. Harry Parker said. In the county lockup, the software keeps track of inmates, their booking records and housing assignments.

By Tuesday afternoon, the launch was feeling kind of like Y2K, Parker said. Y2K was fear about software meltdowns from the changeover to the year 2000. There was a lot of buildup and anxiety, but the reality was anticlimactic.

“You wait and then you’re like, ‘we can handle this,’?” Parker said.

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

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