- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 30, 2001

The D.C. fire department's new computerized dispatch system often sends ambulances and firetrucks to the wrong locations or spots outside their assignment area, delaying response times to emergencies, according to department documents obtained by The Washington Times.
The system often sends trucks to fires in the wrong order, and some trucks are not dispatched at all to incidents where they normally respond, according to department memos and reports.
When the department got a call July 13 for a child impaled on a fence, dispatchers sent Engine 27 instead of Engine 10, which normally would get the call at 21st and H streets NE.
A few minutes later, Engine 27's run was canceled and Engine 10 was sent after all, according to a memo from Lt. Paul M. Gryskewicz to Chief Ronnie Few.
"In my opinion this could be an extremely dangerous practice in light of extended response times … medical care or rescue," Lt. Gryskewicz wrote.
Other times, the computer assigns a call to trucks already dispatched to another call while ignoring available units during emergencies, the memos and reports show.
The systems went online at 3 a.m. in late June with little warning, training or instruction, firefighters told The Times. Since then, medics and firefighters have reported erratic dispatching on a fairly regular basis.
"It's a mess is what it is," said Lt. Raymond Sneed, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association. "It's dangerous for the citizens because there's going to be a delay in getting fire companies on the scene. It's a tragedy waiting to happen."
The dispatch system is the latest communications problem for the department.
Firefighters' portable, personal radios cannot communicate with each other or the communications center at more than four dozen locations in the city, including landmarks like Union Station, D.C. police and FBI headquarters, the MCI Center and the State Department, The Times first reported yesterday.
D.C. Council members who oversee the department as members of the Judiciary Committee said yesterday that they want improvements.
Council member Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat and chairman of the committee, said the chief told her the problems are getting fixed and he's taken safety measures.
"I've been assured they are providing for radio communication," she said. "I have no information either way — to corroborate that or show it's not the case."
Council member Sharon Ambrose, Ward 6 Democrat and a member of the committee, said radio system problems were major factors in the three firefighter fatalities since 1997, and fixing them should be a "major concern."
"These are not insurmountable problems," she said.
"I think the chief has a tendency when problems come up to wring his hands and say, 'It's a shame. We've got to do something about that.' There seems to be more hand-wringing than rolling up the sleeves."
Mrs. Ambrose said Mayor Anthony A. Williams should call the chief and demand an explanation.
Neither the mayor nor his office returned a call seeking comment.
As for the dispatch system, the head of the department's communications division said technicians have "corrected a majority, 90 percent, of those problems."
Deputy Chief John Clayton said the problems were in the system's software, and they are now mostly fixed. The system makes dispatches with 90 percent accuracy, he said.
Technicians from the department and the vendor, Intergraph Corp. of Huntsville, Ala., are testing the system daily and making necessary adjustments, he said.
But a "safety officer's critique form" about a fire on Monday indicates that dispatch problems continue.
"Communications Division spent a long time putting out the dispatch" to six units, but then substituted in four other units, Capt. Kevin M. Byrne wrote in the memo.
"Practically all officers on this alarm criticized Communications Division on the dispatching of this alarm," Capt. Byrne wrote.
After the fire at 1440 Rock Creek Ford Road NW was extinguished, dispatchers were calling for available units for a sort of electrical odor.
Records showed that next call "was in the system for ten minutes prior to finally being dispatched," Capt. Byrne wrote.
Chief Few and others have said every new system has bugs that must be worked out.
The chief said he is trying to find locations to install more antennae and might deploy radio signal booster systems on vehicles responding to incidents to help out with the radios, which were deployed in January.
But a memo from Capt. Michael T. Reilley to Chief Few as recently as Aug. 11 states that both the new radio and dispatch systems have major problems.
"Unfortunately, neither is working as anticipated. There appears to be numerous problems with both systems that are going unaddressed," the memo states.


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