Firefighter Union: Tulsa could have prevented delays as new, old software not communicating properly

TULSA - Only 10 days before Christmas, 75-year-old Della Cole went to the store to pick up a few things.

She returned home to find her house on fire.

"I just couldn't believe it, and all I was thinking was get the dogs out," said Cole.

Two of her dogs made it, but her Chihuahua, Baby, wasn't so lucky.

Now, six weeks later she's still recovering what she can from her charred home. She says thanks to firefighters, it wasn't worse.

"Them getting there as fast as they did, it kept the other house to the south of me from catching on fire."

Getting there quickly is just what firefighters strive to do. While firefighters weren't delayed getting to Della's home, some firefighters are concerned a recent change in dispatch software is causing delays.

The city spent close to $1.9 million on a state-of-the-art dispatch software system called CAD. It's by TriTech , a San Diego company.

However, the new dispatch system has to work with the existing alert system to send out the fire calls. The existing system is called Zetron , and is nearly two decades old. It's having trouble communicating with the new system.

As a result, there have been at least a dozen times when fire stations didn't get alerted to a call so dispatchers have to rely on backup systems, such as the radio and phones. That concerns the fire union president.

"From a public safety standpoint, it's the safety of our firefighters and the safety of our public," said Chad Miller, the president of the firefighters union, IAFF Local 176 .

Deputy Fire Chief Stanley Clark says there are safeguards in place.

"No one's at risk. We have redundancies in place to take care of it, if something fails," said Chief Clark.

The 2NEWS Investigators went digging and found that this entire issue could have been avoided. We pored over the city's 229-page software contract for the dispatch system. It turns out the City of Tulsa only bought part of the system three years ago. The idea was to buy the new dispatch system and marry it with the old alert system. It's something city leaders say TriTech said it could do.

Firefighters say if we had the new system in it's entirety, they probably wouldn't be having these compatibility problems.

"That's the problem. We didn't buy all of the components that we needed to," said Miller.

The city purchased the computer software that helps police, fire and medical communicate with each other, but the city did not buy the technology to replace the old alert system, or the GPS component, which would have given firefighters turn-by-turn directions and dispatchers the ability to know where fire trucks are at all times.

Deputy Chief Clark says the city didn't buy the entire package because it didn't have the money.

He says GPS alone for police and fire would cost more than $1 million. Meanwhile, the cost for an upgraded alert system could cost close to $2 million.

We took the cost issue to Tulsa City Councilor Phil Lakin.

He says the city doesn't have the money and may not for years. He says it's TriTech's responsibility to make its software work with the city's old system.

"TriTech sold us something that they told us would work with the Zetron boxes so we have to hold TriTech accountable for making their software work," said Lakin.

According to TriTech's contract, they do provide assistance with software problems after installations.

We talked to TriTech's CEO. He did not want to go on-camera, but did send us an e-mail saying, "... The system continues to work very well..."

Firefighters we talked to aren't convinced and say they still rely on backup communication.

The one thing everyone agrees on. It needs to work.  "It's better to rely on computer systems that are supposed to work flawlessly," said Lakin.

The fire union president says, despite a number of delays, the dispatch communication issue has not resulted in any serious problems yet.  But he says that until the system is fixed one way or the other, there's no guarantee that a fire truck won't be delayed to your house. We'll continue to track the new system.

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