Digital map a step closer for firefighters

After long delay, system to be booted up today

`We need to keep pace'

Officials hope software eventually will save time

Carroll County

October 22, 2003|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

More than four years after the original deadline, a digital map designed to speed up Carroll firefighters' response to calls is to be loaded today onto the county's 911 computers.

The $540,000 mapping system, which will allow dispatchers to rely on computer screens rather than street maps to guide first responders to emergency scenes, will not be in full use until the end of the year at the earliest. But county emergency officials said they will waste no time in testing the program to work out any bugs.

Fire officials said the upgrade is crucial because of the county's development boom.

"Being able to have a pictorial view of the county as it's grown is essential," said Thomas J. Van de Bussche, president of the Carroll County Volunteer Firemen's Association. "Once upon a time, a dispatcher would be able to visualize where a call originated because they were so familiar with the roads of the county. But now the county is growing, and we need to keep pace."

Van de Bussche said firefighters are eager to field-test the information in the new system so that the digital world matches up with the real world.

"It doesn't need to be right down to the foot, but you can't have hydrants that don't exist," he said.

The software, designed by Maryland-based engineering firm Johnson, Mirmiran & Thompson and scheduled to have been delivered by early 1999, includes a base map that will be installed today. That map will be printed out and given to the county's 14 fire companies, which will check the information and correct it if necessary.

Howard S. Redman, the county's public safety director, said dispatchers will begin training on the mapping system immediately. Once everything checks out, he said, they'll start using the system.

Redman said that as dispatchers type in information from a 911 call, the software will continually zoom in on a more detailed map segment to give emergency workers the best route to the incident.

He said the system will be constantly updated to account for new developments. Eventually, the program will include electronic tags that will give first responders information about the buildings they enter as well as potential hazards in the surrounding buildings.

The current system requires the county's 36 part-time and full-time dispatchers to locate 911 calls using a street map, a process that Van de Bussche said does not take into account hydrants, underground water tanks, or new roads and developments.

"If a person calls, the dispatcher gets the address and cross streets, but when the responding agent comes back and asks for better information, that's more time taken right there," Redman said.

Time is a touchy issue with the county's volunteer firefighters, who have criticized Redman as being too lax about enforcing deadlines for projects such as the mapping system. A year ago, the Carroll County Fire Chiefs association issued a no-confidence vote in Redman, which was followed by similar votes from the Carroll County Volunteer Firemen's Association and Carroll County Ambulance Association.

"It has been an extremely long time in coming, and I think a good bit of it has been at fault with JMT," Van de Bussche said. "I think they overestimated their capability and underestimated the length of time the job would take."

Attempts to reach JMT for comment yesterday were not successful.

The project's origins can be traced to 1997, when the county received a $540,000 state grant. The county awarded the contract to Johnson, Mirmiran & Thompson. But the project was beset by delays, and JMT asked for extensions.

Because he thought accuracy was more important than meeting a deadline, Redman agreed. But delays continued as the county constantly corrected sample maps that showed errors such as telephone lines going through ponds. Redman has said the firm misinterpreted contractually required specifications for the system.

Frustrated at the pace of the project, Redman fired JMT for breach of contract after the last deadline passed in April last year. The county refused to pay any more until the mapping system was complete. But by then, JMT had been paid $478,000.

Redman went back to the contractor this spring. He said JMT wanted to iron out the problems in the project, which resulted in an agreement that the software would be ready by today.

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