bTucson : a Tucson, Arizona Community Driven Directory

911 Tucson


2011-08-18 : by Golda Velez
Michael LaFond knew there would be problems with the new 911 software system even before it was installed.  He knew, because back in 2006 when the Tucson Police Department started using the system called Meridian Vesta, calls from 911 operators would be dropped when being transferred to TPD.  The Tucson Police Dept might not have noticed - they just never got the call.  But the 911 operator, if they stayed on the line, would just hear the ringing stop without anyone pick up the other end, and would have to try the transfer again.  If they didn't stay on the line, the caller would just be dropped, and have to call back to 911 - which some people did.

"For Tucson Police, they could make the argument that it was a reasonable risk.  Because for their operation, the types of calls they get, 95% of their calls are not emergency."  But for 911, dropped calls are just not acceptable.  A higher percentage of 911 calls are emergencies, people needing help, and "some of those people cannot call back.  Or we get calls from little children, or elderly people, that all this technology just throws them in a flummox.  We get calls from every kind of person, everyone that needs help calls 911.  So some of those calls that were going to be dropped would be important public safety calls.  And I knew this was going to happen."

General services manager Ron Lewis admits as much, that LaFond warned the department about the problems and alerted his supervisors to issues when the switch occurred.  Lewis said that supervisors sent LaFond a letter thanking him for his suggestions.  But that didn't stop them from firing him shortly after.

I talked to Michael LaFond at some length on Aug 17, the day he lost his appeal before the civil service commission.  In about an hour of conversation, he never once brought up his own case.  He did, however, explain in detail how and why callers could suffer harm, could be endangered by the issues with the new system.

Although LaFond anticipated problems, he "had no idea it was going to be this bad."  Computers sometimes have 'glitches', and the old system wasn't perfect.  But with the new system, "We would have 5 times in a shift, serious things like losing sound - so I have a caller on the line and I cannot hear the person speaking.  When I go back and hear the recording, they could hear me, they were talking, but I couldn't hear them.  So they were on the line and they were unable to get help.  There was a caller that was having an emergency and I was unable to transfer the call.  I had to write the phone number down and walk the phone number over to TPD."  

Another major shortcoming of the new system is the inability of dispatchers to listen in easily on each other's calls.  

"You used to be able to push a button and get on the same line as someone else.  We had built a structure that the person who was going to work dispatch for the fire department - there's only a certain number of positions wher eyou can do just call taking, so dispatchers can kind of share the load especially when its slower.  If I'm slow I can help out another person.  One of the things that allows a second person to be on the call with the call takers.  Why would that be necessary?  Well the call taker has a lot of things they have to do all at one time.  They have to be listening to the caller, reassuring the caller, and following a protocol.  They have to flip thru these cards and make decisions, that it is this kind of incident or that kind of incident.  And they have to do it with a high degree of accuracy.  In fact they are not supposed to deviate at all from their cards.  They have to continually bring things right back to the right order, because of all the quesitons they have to examine and study - they have to do all of this, and check their screens - there are so many things that call taker has to do, and they have to do it fast."

"There are so many things that call taker has to do, its easy to make  error.  Even in a normal conversation its easy to misunderstand....We're talking to people in the most horrific circumstances of their lives, and people when they are upset, their voice gets tense, they don't think properly, they are different people than they would normally be.  Now we try to stay calm on our end, but that doesn't help their end.  Its easy to have miscommunication, where you think you know what the person said and meant, but you really don't.  When you're making decisions that have life and dealth consequences, an error is very serious.  Having another person on the phone, who is calm but not responsible for following the cards etc, that person has a perspective that is very helpful.  Not that they know what is going on, but they might say 'you don't know that for sure'.  By sitting back and monitoring, another person in the room will say 'hold on, ask this question'.  That person has maybe saved somebody's life."

With the new system, there is a way to get a second caller on the line, but only after the address - that most important piece of information - has been entered; and the process of adding another person takes several seconds.  With the old system a second dispatcher could just press a button and add themselves to the call instantly, at any point during the call.  

It is true, the old system had to be replaced at some point, because these systems are only designed for a 10-year life cycle.  However, the switch to Meridian could have been reversed as it was not an emergency situation, and maybe still could be.  

The issue that was most pressing at the time, was the physical switch in use, which was starting to fail.  Tucson Police Department had a separate switch, which was and is still working (unless it is actually the switch and not the software that is dropping calls...).  However, when the decision was made to switch to the TPD switch, it was not necessary to adopt the Meridian software as well.  LaFond, who has worked there for 17 years and knows many of the technicians, said he did "talk to some QWest technician, I talked to one particular one, who is very knowledgable, before we were going to connect to this new system.  I asked him flat out, 'can we connect to that 911 switch that TPD switch directly (not going thru the ACD)'  And he said yes".  So the decision to use the Meridian ACD software system was not necessarily driven by the failure of the physical switch, and was not pressing, though at some point a new system would have been necessary.

LaFond is hopeful that the Fire Department will address the problems aggressively and make sure a fix is in place. "This is a public safety entity, they understand the liability, they understand the need to get it right.  My management was OK with it not working, as long as nobody knew."

As reported on KGUN9, 'Operators say they were told to log any unexplained troubles as "Code 17" and later found "Code 17" was the tag for operator errors.' Then Ron Lewis reported to the city council that most of the problems were 'operator error'!

Lewis may want to back up his supervisors and save money for the city, but sacrificing public safety isn't the way to do it.  When I asked Lewis if LaFond had been fired in retaliation for whistleblowing, he responded categorically "no he was not."   We need leaders who will take responsibility, fix problems, and back up the people on the front lines, not bureaucrats patting each other on the back.  

This whole 911 mess has exposed three key problems that we need to fix in Tucson:

1) The 911 system itself still has to be fixed.  Whether we can in fact still back out the new system - where are the old servers, workstations and wiring?  Or whether we need to get on QWest and Motorola until they fix the new one, it needs to be someone's top priority to fix ASAP.  

2) Workers need to be listened to when they report problems.  Michael LaFond should be reinstated and given free rein to investigate the issues - he may be the most qualified and dedicated person to do so.  Transparency, quick reporting of problems should be the norm.  The top managers in charge - Ron Lewis, Isiah Twombly, and Mike Letcher should be evaluated for their handling of this situation and others.  If this is a pattern, they need to be replaced.  I haven't been following the city manager's office closely enough to know if it is or not, but clearly there is a lot of frustration from the front lines and this problem was reported in the news media before council members heard about it from the manager's office.

3) The staffing and resources issues can't be fully addressed until we get the legislature to stop stealing money that belongs to Tucson taxpayers.  The money allocated for the new switch and 911 system we needed is paid for out of your phone bills, but the legislature took it for the general fund, to close a gap caused by a lowering of corporate and income taxes, expansion of the private prison system, as well as the economy.  See Arizona Divided for an analysis of how some of this came to be.  Call your legislator and ask them who took the money for emergency communications systems and how we can get it back.  """""""

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