Boone County public safety technology overhaul lacks traction

Thursday, December 8, 2011 | 6:00 a.m. CST
Division chief Rick Douglas explains how firefighters locate unfamiliar addresses on "The Map," a ceiling-high, gridded map of Columbia, at Fire Station No. 1 in Columbia on Wednesday. A task force comprised of various interested city groups is considering acquiring technology that, among many other fuctions, would install GPS in fire department trucks.

COLUMBIA — Each of the 10 Boone County public safety agencies that dispatch through Public Safety Joint Communications use different systems to manage their records.

That means that someone with a warrant in Columbia could be stopped by a deputy in the Boone County Sheriff's Department just outside the city limits and not be arrested, simply because of a lack of communication between that department and the Columbia police.

Agencies planning to interface with the new system

Columbia Fire Department

Boone County Fire Protection District

Southern Boone County Fire Protection District

University of Missouri Ambulance Services

Boone County Hospital Ambulance Services

Columbia Police Department

Boone County Sheriff's Department and Jail

Public Safety Joint Communications

Columbia City Prosecutor's Office

Agencies considering interfacing with the new system

Hallsville Police Department

Ashland Police Department

Centralia Police Department

Sturgeon Police Department

Similarly, if police bust a methamphetamine lab, the fire department might not know to potentially expect a chemical fire if they're later dispatched to a call at the same residence.

Dianne Bernhard, a captain in the Columbia Police Department, described the agency's records management system as "antiquated." The police department's system is 18 years old, while the sheriff department's system is about 22.

"We have a severe need for a new system," Bernhard said. 

That's one of the reasons a task force has been meeting for about a year to find a vendor for new software and hardware that would provide Boone County public safety agencies with modern records systems. A new system — especially one equipped with widespread Geographic Information System technology — would allow for instant communications between the agencies and expanded capabilities for all emergency personnel in the field.

For example, GIS technology would provide police officers with geographic analyses of crime, firefighters with mobile routing tools and all agencies with digital maps showing the location of other emergency vehicles in the field.

"The overall good of what could be accomplished with this is just, it's exciting to me," said Bernhard, the task force's current project manager.

But the task force — made up of representatives from the 10 agencies, Public Safety Joint Communications and the City Prosecutor's Office — has had some trouble coming up with a solution that satisfies each agency.

The group reviewed products from two vendors in June but rejected both because neither offered each agency the capabilities they wanted.

"Trying to kind of gather this whole group of agencies to come to agreement has been a little challenging over the last several months," said Deputy City Manager Tony St. Romaine.

Because of those challenges, the task force has decided to hire an outside consultant to manage the project.

Obstacles to completion

The project began with the Columbia Police and Boone County Sheriff's departments realized they were both looking for a modern records management system. It eventually expanded to include all Boone County public safety agencies, excluding MU Police.

Captain Brian Weimer of the MU Police Department said there's a possibility his department's system might integrate with the one the task force is hoping to purchase. But the department doesn't feel it needs to change the system it installed in 2005, which Weimer said is working effectively.

The task force's biggest obstacle has been the question of whether to replace or upgrade the Computer-Aided Dispatch system directed by the joint communications agency if all the agencies' various records management systems are to be replaced. Among other things, that agency receives 911 calls, dispatches the appropriate agencies based on those calls and stores information about them.

"One of the biggest issues is, will the new Computer-Aided Dispatch system do everything we were hoping it would accomplish?" said Steven Sapp Battalion Chief of the Columbia Fire Department and a member of the task force. "Those that live within that CAD world say yes, it can. Those of us that are outside that world are saying we're not so sure."

Boone County public safety agencies want to be able to push the information in their records systems to that dispatch system, making that information available to all the other agencies that dispatch through it.

They also want the dispatch system to be GIS-centric.

Zim Schwartze, director of Public Safety Joint Communications, said an upgrade would be sufficient to meet all the agencies' needs, and the current system is not being used to its fullest potential.

"A lot of the stuff that they want — I truly believe they don't realize we can already do now with what we have," Schwartze said. "So it's more of an educational process."

Schwartze said that though she agreed many of the records management systems need to be changed, she doesn't think Computer-Aided Dispatch needs to be thrown into the mix.

"The only thing that's working properly right now is CAD," she said.

St. Romaine said an upgrade to the dispatch system could cost the city approximately $1 million less than a replacement. Boone County and the city of Columbia have allotted $1.3 million to the entire project.

Whether an upgrade is a viable option will likely be determined with the help of the consultant the task force hires and the responses to the next Request for Proposals, the document detailing what the task force is looking for from a company.

St. Romaine said the project has been put on hold – possibly by February 2012 – until a consultant has been hired.

What the technology can do

The challenges of choosing a vendor for the new technology aside, the potential benefits are many and the need pressing, said both Bernhard and Deputy Chief Randy White of the Columbia Fire Department.

"It's gotten to be a situation where we fell farther and farther behind," White said. "We need to make the steps, even if they're baby steps, to keep up with technology."

St. Romaine said improved efficiency is one of the project's primary goals. The new system will have one record per name or address that each separate agency will be able to modify.

Currently, a new record is required for every agency, Bernhard said.

And the more records there are, the higher the chance of errors. That means that if the Boone County Jail misspells an arrested person's name, the Sheriff's or police departments' records for that person won't coincide with those at the jail, she said.

Firetruck drivers use paper maps to find their way to a fire, and the only information available to most of them in the field is what they are told via radio. With the new technology, they would have computers able to map their route and show where other emergency vehicles are, Sapp said.

Firefighters would also be able to pull up information such as floor plans, the presence of hazardous materials and fire hydrant locations, he said.

"All that information is being stored in our system, but it can't make that jump from where the data is stored to the trucks, where it's needed," White said.

If the police department suspects someone of committing a bank robbery but doesn't have a warrant for the person's arrest, a sheriff's deputy would know that. If the deputy stops the suspect for a traffic violation, he or she would then know to "look for a bank bag in the car, ask questions or notify a detective," Bernhard said.

"We all share the same bad guys, basically," said Major Tom Reddin of the Boone County Sheriff's Department.

GIS-centric technology would also allow for better crime analysis, Bernhard said, because it would allow officers to map incidents by date and type. That information could be used by officers to take a proactive approach to crime.

"If there's burglaries happening, where are they happening at in general?" Bernhard said. "If it's burglaries where people are getting in through sliding glass doors … you can turn around and educate the public about sliding glass doors."

St. Romaine also stressed the importance of GIS-centric technology, explaining that "It's much easier to look at a map than it is looking at a bunch of tables. It basically kind of paints a picture for you."

The new technology would have a positive impact on crime in Columbia, St. Romaine said.

Police Chief Ken Burton agreed. He said GIS technology would allow officers to easily see what has been happening on their beats.

"(The officers) will know what issues are occurring on their beat and they can address them proactively," Burton said.

A new records management system would also mean officers could spend less time in their offices and more time patrolling, St. Romaine said. Not only would the new technology allow them to file reports from the field but it would also be more efficient and user-friendly.

"It takes our officers an enormous amount of time to enter police reports into the text-based system," Bernhard said. "The new systems have things like drop-down menus. It's almost intuitive."

"The more time you keep them on the street, the better," St. Romaine said.

Once a consultant is hired, the task force will likely start working on its second request for proposals. It learned from the responses to its previous request for proposals that it's unlikely there is one company able to provide all the agencies with what they need.

"It doesn't appear the industry is there yet," White said.

St. Romaine said that one possible solution is to allow companies to partner, each providing Boone County public safety agencies with the product the company specializes in, whether it is law enforcement, fire protection or Emergency Medical Services.

"If they can make that work, probably (they) will be light years ahead of any other system in the country," said Columbia City Prosecutor Stephen Richey, whose office is also hoping to interface with the new system.  

The bid to hire a consultant for the project will open tomorrow and close in January. St. Romaine said about $50,000 to $75,000 of the project budget will be set aside for consulting.

He said he hopes the task force and the outside consultant will find a vendor by October 2012, and Boone County public safety agencies will have a fully implemented system by the end of the year. 

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