ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - Bernalillo County has been using a new, million-dollar emergency dispatch system since the middle of September.
But county officials admit to KRQE News 13 that the critical communications link has yet to work the way they planned.
What's more, it could be 60 days until the problems get fixed.
The system is a combination of a "CAD" - computer aided dispatch - and an "FSA" - a fire station alerting program.
The pair of computer programs by Motorola is supposed to automatically find the closest emergency crews and send out audible alerts to the right crews at the right county fire stations.
An emergency call in the middle of the night earlier this month illustrates the problem.
At Bernalillo County fire stations 30 and 36 that night, many firefighters were asleep. As a call for a man having a heart attack came into the county's 911 dispatch center, the CAD system pinpointed the engine crew at station 30 and the rescue crew at station 36 as the two units closest to the emergency.
But with seconds already ticking by and minutes soon to be slipping away, the rescue crew at station 36 slept soundly.
Alert tones for the call didn't sound in the downstairs bunk room used by the rescue crew during their 24-hour shift.
They sounded upstairs.
If not for a battalion commander, who as luck would have it was not out on another call, the rescue crew may not have dashed out the door in time - or maybe at all.
Records show that scenario would have left the heart attack victim with only basic medical attention from a sheriff's deputy for nearly two minutes until the engine crew from station 30 arrived.
"Time is crucial when responding to cardiac events or any other medical event, for that matter" says Robert Sanchez, a Bernalillo County firefighter and IAFF union vice president, "keep in mind that when a tone goes to a bunk room, immediately following the tone is direction from the dispatch on where we're going and what kind of call we're going to."
The new system has been available, waiting to be set up, since late 2011.
The county's fire chief says that means there should have been enough time to thoroughly test the new programs before going live in mid-September. "It does," says Frank Barka, "It was enough time. Again, we assumed - and we were told - that when it plugged in, it would work."
Karen Ziegler is in charge of the county's dispatch center, and in charge of the new CAD and alerting system.
"It is huge," Ziegler says, "It is. There's been a lot of change."
Ziegler maintains the county wasn't able to test the two systems together using a real tone at a real station until just a few weeks before they went live.
But the chief says problems surfaced immediately.
"Pretty much as soon as it went live," Barka says, there were issues. "We started realizing 'Wait a minute, here. That engine tone is coming, but it's a call for the rescue'."
The confusion means crews are constantly either constantly being alerted to calls they're not assigned to or that crews aren't hearing about calls to which they have to respond.
What the county thought would be a way to efficiently let crews rest during 24-hour shifts has instead turned into a system of knocking on bunk room doors and sleeping next to emergency radios.
Instead of being rested, crews could be ragged when they're sent to an emergency.
Ziegler says delaying the live launch in September would have made sense if she'd known how serious the problems were.
Firefighters like Robert Sanchez say from the launch until just last week, automatic alert tones were inaccurate and unreliable. "It's been two or three years in the making. what's another two or three months in testing?" Sanchez wonders.
The problems haven't stopped crews from going out to emergency calls, but they have slowed response times.
As a workaround, the county now has dispatchers send information to the stations manually, then manually activate the alert tones.
Motorola has been called back to the county to help with a fix, but the company tells KRQE News 13 that getting the alert tones to sound in the right rooms at the right stations could take 60 days.
"We've always said seconds count." Chief Barka offers, "It's our intent to shave off as many of those as possible."
Ziegler agrees. "When we're trying to save a little bit of time, every little bit counts."
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