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Ambo-fire dispatch glitch sorted

FEATURE: Fire NZ, September 2015

A robust fix is finally in place eight months after an emergency communications glitch was first detected between St John Ambulance and NZ Fire Service requiring an old school phone back-up protocol to remain in place, until recently.

News that important messages from St John had been lost on four occasions wasn’t escalated to national level at the NZ Fire Service until five months after the first occurrence, raising serious concerns that firefighters were being placed at risk.

The New Zealand Professional Firefighters Union (NZFPU) first raised the matter with the NZ Fire Service (NZFS) in March when it learned “unacceptable” glitches and “unreliability” had resulted in potentially life threatening circumstances.

When it appeared nothing had been done, a second critical memo was leaked to the NZ Herald by an unknown party. NZ Fire Service national operations manager Ken Cooper says once the issue was escalated from a technical glitch to one involving the safety of fire crews it “got onto the right radar” rapidly.

An initial fix scheduled to go live at the end of June was broken when it was put through rigorous testing by NZ Fire Service and St John. The issue was finally resolved in the first week of July.

After an urgent high-level meeting on 18 March this year software provider Intergraph was on the case and emergency services covered themselves by phoning messages and alerts for all fire and ambulance callouts.

Cooper says this was “a wake-up call” which ended up “ripping the plaster off the wound” to identify other areas that could be improved, especially through communications with the Police. “The main concern is the constant dynamic environment the three emergency services are working in”.

According to Paul Turner, the NZFS medical response project manager who took the lead in overseeing the system fix, several issues were found but it was decided to focus on a “point fix”, targeting the intermittent “dropping out” of messages between ambulance and fire. 

An initial fix scheduled to go live at the end of June was broken when it was put through rigorous testing by NZ Fire Service and St John. The issue was finally resolved in the first week of July.

Missed messages

Firefighters Union national secretary Derek Best, although glad the issues have been rectified, remains concerned the fix took so long.

“Many of these issues were bought to the attention of the fire service some time ago but nothing seemed to happen until we raised it again.”

It was initially claimed the problem didn’t affect police or ambulance communications, “if the Fire Service has a problem then the others do as well. I don’t think it affects only one organisation.”

He’s gracious in saying the NZ Fire Service is probably no better or worse than a lot of institutions, “Unless there’s a disaster nothing seems to happen”.

In November last year St John despatchers sent a warning to a fire crew heading to a Corromandel address but the message never got through and they found themselves confronted with a gun wielding man. They had to secure the loaded weapon before proceeding.

In another case firefighters weren’t informed a “possibly violent” person was in attendance at a fire in Dairy Flat in October. On another call-out a message informing them they’d been stood down never arrived and in a fourth incident a message telling crew that a helicopter was 12 minutes away failed to arrive.

Part of the problem is that Police and the NZ Fire Service use the InterCad (iCAD) system to link with the main emergency communications centre and St John uses a different system known as VisiCAD. The systems work slightly differently and require tight synchronisation.

Fire and Ambulance services signed off a formal memorandum of understanding (MOU) in December 2014 a decade after the NZFS agreed to pick up an increasing workload of first responder and medical emergency work.

Turner says across the new multi-agency environment there are now “50 million data packets an hour being transferred around the system”. Entire incident reports are shared between agencies for each initial call out and in subsequent communications everything is filtered out except new comments.

Technically speaking the problem was in “the logic tree” within the software. On unpredictable occasions when multiple packets were sent between fire and ambulance simultaneously “it wouldn’t necessarily bring all the right data across”.

Turner says the problem isn’t specifically with the St John system but he agrees “if we were all on the same system we wouldn’t need to have InterCAD”.

A back-up protocol remains in place. If an acknowledgement has not been received within 30 seconds of a message being sent, a follow up phone call is made to ensure information hasn’t been lost.

“We need to make sure information gets to the front line every time and we’ve been quite vigilant to ensure that it has,” says Turner. “We’ll keep that up until the three agencies...decide the way forward.”

Intergraph put together its own local and global task force and worked around the clock with a series of rigorous tests to identify the issue. Stephen Wilson, Intergraph New Zealand country manager, describes the problem as a configuration issue related to supplementary comments from Ambulance despatch.

He insists there’s no problem with the underlying Fire and Police dispatch system (CARD) or the primary incident information passed between dispatch systems.

An important key in resolving the problem was the ability to have VisiCAD data, being shared between NZFS and St John, run through Intergraph’s Wellington laboratory to isolate areas of concern.

An award winner

Intergraph’s InterCAD system, first implemented in 2009, enabled the real-time sharing of essential 111 caller information between Police, the Fire Service and Ambulance. By June 2011 it had dealt with 135,000 emergencies and was described in a case study as a ‘no wrong door’ solution with services mobilised immediately no matter who received the call.

It won the Excellence in Networked Government category of the 2010 annual Institute of Public Administration of New Zealand awards.

InterCAD was part of an overarching vision promising faster, safer, more efficient, shared emergency services through linking the common Intergraph despatch systems at Police and Fire with the one used by Ambulance.

Previously if a second service was required the request had to be made by phone often resulting in delays and errors through double handling of information. The agencies also required different sets of information and had different ways of dealing with it.

When the new system was first scoped out in 2008 it was a world leader. A budget of $600,000 was allocated with members from each agency and Intergraph reporting to a steering committee as they tackled what was described as “significant technical and organisational hurdles”.

The different systems and call handling processes had to be aligned without compromising existing IT and call centre systems while assuring privacy and security of information.

More refinements ahead

St John first began implementing the VisiCAD despatch system from US-based Tritech in 1996 which gave it GIS map-based display of Auckland, Christchurch and the Wellington Free Ambulance centre. Essential call data is shared with the NZ Police and NZ Fire Service, who are often first responders. resources linking incident addresses and vehicle locations to street maps. 

Lee Brooks, St John Assistant Operations Director of Clinical Control Services insists the recent issues were not related to load or traffic as the platform is designed to handle high intensity workloads.

He says St John has invested significantly to ensure its service is as seamless as possible and after working with Police and Fire it was determined no further development was necessary from VisiCAD’s developers.

“We have been fully engaged with both agencies to provide all the assistance needed to ensure the interface between our systems remains at the desired level.”

He says there’s been no thought of St John moving to the same system as Fire and Police although it is working on a future CAD roadmap and migrating to new infrastructure to ensure continued reliability. No details were available at publication date.

“We are committed to making our CAD system the best possible solution it can be, recognising that at the centre of decision making will be the interests of our patients and our specific emergency, non- emergency and clinical needs.”

Now that the glitch between NZFS and St John systems has been ironed out, there are plans to further improve and enhance the InterCAD system so it’s easier for people in the main communications centre to use, including tracking who put what information where.

NZFS medical response project manager, Paul Turner says data comes to emergency services with an address, which needs to be verified for accuracy before the incident is accepted and imported into the GPS map-based system used by fire and ambulance to give directions. This is likely to become “more seamless”.

Discussions are also underway with communication centre staff, their union and frontline fire service people on how their interactions with the Intergraph systems might be improved. This includes the “whole package of how we can work more efficiently with ambulance,” says Turner.

One enhancement that has been agreed on is the addition of time stamping so St John can see automatically when a fire truck has arrived at a job. “At the moment we have to send it through manually and they enter it manually. This will free them up to do other work.”

Turner says NZFS and St John now have “far better processes for dealing with issues more quickly” and communication with Intergraph is much improved.

And while ideas are being shared about future enhancements he says “these aren’t something you just plug in, they have to be thoroughly worked through in a test environment”.

Back to Fire

Serious problem: communications issue was putting firefighters at risk.

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