Texas Dispatch Causes Concern

SAN ANTONIO --

A new, $19 million, computer-automated dispatch system was supposed to increase efficiency and decrease fire and EMS response times, but the union representing the city's firefighters claimed Thursday it is a waste of money.

"This money pit of a system was a poor decision by the city," said Christopher Steele, the president of the San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association said Thursday. "The city should immediately dump this system and go back to the old dispatch system."

The new system went online six weeks ago, but Steele said his union members are still dealing with several problems.

"I'm tired and the firefighters are tired of it being characterized as great," Steele said. "Six weeks in, and there's still tons of problems."

One of the chief complaints is a delay between when a call comes in and when the appropriate units are actually dispatched.

Under the old system, a call would come in and within seconds, a dispatcher would determine what type of call it was and then dispatch the proper units.

Under the new system, when a call comes in, the call takers must ask a series of 10 questions before a computer dispatches any units.

"That basically requires you to ask 10 questions, and if you know anything about our business, you know that delay is death," Steele said.

Firefighters are also having a difficult time understanding the computer voice that dispatches the units. They said it often mispronounces the names of streets, which causes further delays.

Steele said in a news conference that the system is putting the lives of citizens and firefighters at risk.

"We are trained for rapid response and this is slowing us down," Steele said.

City officials have admitted the department is still "tweaking" the new system but said it is living up to expectations.

According to the San Antonio Fire Department, in the first six weeks of being operational, the system has reduced response times from 4.72 minutes down to 4.57 minutes.

"We're pushing more information out to our field units than ever before," said Yvette Granato, an assistant chief with the San Antonio Fire Department.

One of the biggest advantages to the new system, according to Granato, is that the questions being asked by the call taker give the firefighters the most up-to-date information about a call. Under the old system, they would only get a brief description.

The CAD system also prioritizes calls. In the past, units were dispatched to calls as they came in. Now the system can decide which calls deserve an immediate response and which ones can wait.

The new system also uses a form of GPS to locate the closest unit to a particular call.

While the union has complained that the system is sending units across town unnecessarily, the department claimed that's not the case.

Granato said a majority of the complaints may simply be part of the culture of change in a large department where firefighters are used to doing things the old way.

Even so, the department said it is willing to listen to the suggestions offered up by the Union and it's members.

"We're still tweaking the system and that's going to continue, but we are definitely receptive if there's anything the union needs to let us know that we might not be aware of," Granato said.

The CAD system was purchased through a joint agreement between the city of San Antonio, Bexar County and the city of Schertz.

The system has been operational in Schertz for several weeks with no major complaints.

The Bexar County Sheriff's Office just switched over to the same system and the San Antonio Police Department is soon to follow.

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