Fire officials scrap computer project $600,000 expenditure for mobile terminals is called 'a bad decision'

July 31, 1996|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

After years spent struggling with glitches, Baltimore County is scrapping a $600,000 communications project that put computer terminals in fire engines.

The terminals, designed to enable firefighters to communicate silently and accurately with dispatchers, did not mesh well with the engines' specialized electrical systems, fire officials said.

Transmissions often failed to penetrate fire houses, so information did not appear on the screens until the engines had arrived at a fire. And service no longer is available from manufacturer Motorola, which no longer makes the machines.

County budget director Fred Homan said buying the Keyboard Display Terminals for fire engines was a mistake; 100 of the $6,000 units are in fire engines. "It was a reach, an expensive reach. A bad decision got made," he said.

The terminals were part of a $32 million upgrade in the county's emergency communications system in 1990 -- the first major change since the 1950s. In addition to a new radio system augmented by seven transmission towers around the county, the terminals were installed on 206 police patrol cars and 209 fire engines and medic units.

The system was intended to eliminate radio "dead" spots around the county, and was designed so firefighters and police officers would not have to depend on often-jammed or hard-to-hear radio transmissions. The terminals were meant to enable firefighters to read their destination, with directions, and quickly get information about a fire instead of copying it by hand.

But the new units have worked better for police than for firefighters.

Fire engine electrical systems, different from those in police and ambulance vehicles, caused severe problems, said fire Capt. Stephen T. Gisriel, chief of communications. Electrically caused miscommunications sparked confusion and more radio transmissions -- the opposite effect that terminals were supposed to have.

The terminals will be removed from fire trucks and distributed to police and medical units.

Gisriel said the Fire Department never wanted the Motorola KDT 480's, preferring a smaller model that the company could not deliver.

He said other departments around the nation still study the county's system. "We learned a lot," Gisriel said.

Homan noted that the county lacked a department to review the police-led committee that worked on purchasing the system in 1988-1989. As a result, fire officials wanted whatever police were getting, he said.

Homan took control of the system in 1991, and the county's Department of Information and Technology now helps to make technical decisions.

Despite the problems, the experiment has not been a failure, said firefighters union President Kevin B. O'Connor and Fire Chief Paul Reincke, who headed the department when the terminals were purchased.

Removing the machines is merely preparation for the laptop computers Reincke hopes to get in about 18 months, he said.

"When functioning properly, it's a worthwhile tool," O'Connor said of the Motorola terminals, adding that "they haven't worked perfectly in a long time. It's important we have some kind of computer capability."

County police are to receive 45 laptops for use in a $1 million pilot project in the Cockeysville precinct next year. If they work as expected, the Fire Department may get some too, Reincke said.

Pub Date: 7/31/96

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