As 2000 nears, state and local emergency

Patrolman Mike Kincy, right, and Richardson, Texas, Police Communications Capt. Joe Hanna check portable emergency response systems for readiness.

Focus of Y2K fixes has centered on date-sensitive telephony applications

By George V. Hulme

Special to GCN

Municipalities that have tested and readied 911 systems expect things to work just fine on New Year's, unless citizens get itchy fingers and dial the emergency number just to see what happens.

Callers to 911 systems that haven't prepared for the year 2000 could reach a dispatcher as usual, but software and communications glitches could lengthen response time.

Tests show the largest 911 obstacles lay in software glitches within date-sensitive communications and records management software. Older computer-aided dispatch applications freeze when the clock is pushed beyond New Year's. That forces dispatchers to manually determine both the location of the caller and the nearest available emergency response vehicle.

'Most every 911 system has automatic call redistribution or an automatic voice response system, and many of these telephony applications are date-dependent and will crash if not remedied or replaced,' said Barry Domber, vice president and Y2K practice manager for Technology Business Integrators of Woodcliffe Lake, N.J.

'And while many municipalities are working on solving their Y2K problems,' there is a small but significant percentage that are not, he said.

Municipalities that have prepared, despite favorable testing and assurances from power and telephone companies, are not taking any chances come Jan. 1.

Chickasha, Okla., tested and readied its system, but officials will be standing by, just in case.

'As a precaution, they [city officials] are throwing a New Year's watch party where all of the department heads and emergency supervisors will be at City Hall waiting to see what is going to happen,' police Capt. Lynn Williams said.

When Chickasha conducted initial tests, the city found the police, fire and ambulance mobile radios to be 2000-ready. But the MS-DOS emergency records management system and communications software locked up. The city scrapped the entire network, upgraded its 35 PCs to Microsoft Windows NT and updated the dispatch software.

Roanoke, Va., found that its 10-year-old mainframe and computer-aided dispatch software were not 2000-ready.

Also, most of its hardware and software vendors no longer supported the equipment.

'We were faced with Y2K compliance, very high support costs and difficulty finding hardware to replace failing equipment,' said Roy Mentkow, systems analyst for the city.

To solve the problem, Roanoke assembled a year 2000 team of representatives from communications, information technology, police and fire and emergency medical services in 1995.

Marlys Davis, King County, Wash., 911 program manager, says systems are ready; the remaining challenge is educating the public.

Made to order

'We assessed our position, and with the help of a consultant we developed a very specific requests for proposals,' Mentkow said.

Earlier this year, the city awarded a $2.3 million contract to Printrak International Inc. of Anaheim, Calif., to build an integrated dispatch system, jail management system, and police and records management system for the Roanoke Police Department, Fire Department and EMS, and the Roa
noke County Sheriff's Office.

The computer-aided dispatch portion of the project will support about 100,000 calls annually.

Roanoke planners wanted increased network flexibility, performance and reliability, and better client-server development tools and databases.

'The technology at the time [1995] did not offer mature computer-aided dispatch systems that were integrated with responder applications in a seamless way,' Mentkow said. 'The applications were largely clumsy and fragmented, and that is why we waited until this year.'

Not all organizations encountered such challenges. With 18 public safety answering points servicing a population of 1.7 million, King County, Wash., only found one glitch in its records management software, which helps the county track the 1.76 million annual emergency calls.

'After testing and assessment everything looked good,' said Marlys Davis, King County 911 program manager. 'All of our other vendors have assured us that their equipment is compliant, and as for mobile communications, we aren't expecting any problems. Motorola has assured us our system is compliant.'

Frederick County, Md., on July 22 participated in a statewide test under the direction of the Maryland Emergency Response Agency.

The drill included 40 agencies, including Baltimore City, Ocean City, the State Police and the Maryland Department of Motor Vehicles.

Dennis Wallace, left, director of Emergency Services for Sumner County, Tenn., and EMS workers Matt McLane and Nicole Fults will be ready to respond on Jan. 1.

Carl Moore, director of Frederick County interagency information technologies, said the testing appears to have gone well.

Frederick County has tested its 75-station network, Hewlett-Packard 3000 server and dispatch software three times since April 1998 by pushing the system date forward, Moore said. 'We haven't encountered any Y2K communication glitches, and we aren't expecting any problems,' he said.

Of course, 911 systems preparedness depends on telephone service. 'Our testing has been extremely successful, and we haven't seen anything that would indicate we are going to see a Y2K-induced outage,' said Richard Friedman, director of BellSouth's year 2000 program management office.

'All of the municipalities we support are complete, and we have upgraded or replaced all of the controllers, tandem switches, as well as all of our back office and [emergency] 911 monitoring systems. I can confidently say we feel very good about our level of preparedness,' he said.

Chickasha, Okla., police Capt. Lynn Williams, left, and Sgt. Shannon McClain, discuss the city's communications systems. The city upgraded to a network running NT.

Does it work?

One fear weakens municipalities' confidence that all systems will be go on New Year's: Hordes of curious or concerned residents dialing 911 shortly after midnight to test the system and phone lines.

'If too many people jump on the phone all at once, it may overload the phone system and make it difficult for real emergencies to get through,' Davis said. 'We are doing our best to educate the public in meetings. We are hoping the message gets across that there is nothing to worry about, and I think they're getting good communication from the phone and electric companies as well.'

As part of their contingency plans, many emergency response services have backup two-way radio systems. If computer systems do crash, dispatchers would take notes and gather location information manually.

'If municipalities have to revert to manual mode, the worst that will happen is that response time will be slowed,' Moore said.

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