Southland officials dismayed with 911 system
By Casey Toner firstname.lastname@example.org February 9, 2014 9:16PM
The SouthCom 911 Dispatch Center in Matteson provides 911 service for Matteson, Richton Park, Park Forest, and Olympia Fields. The center bought a new 911 system in 2008 that has come under scrutiny by SouthCom officials. | Casey Toner~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 10, 2014 2:03AM
Austrian firm Frequentis agreed to build an emergency dispatch system for the SouthCom 911 Dispatch Center in Matteson that would be a showcase to the nation.
Instead, the innovative, million-dollar system that Southland police officers, firefighters and dispatchers rely on every day is riddled with so many glitches that a local official at a SouthCom board meeting last year called it a “lemon” and wondered publicly, “What does Frequentis do right?”
At that May 29 meeting, SouthCom officials considered suing Frequentis to get their money back and questioned whether the system, which began operating in 2011, could jeopardize residents and emergency responders in Olympia Fields, Park Forest, Matteson and Richton Park — the municipalities that SouthCom serves.
“We all want to sit and believe it’s going to get better, but in our minds it’s probably not going to,” Park Forest Police Chief Cliff Butz said during the meeting. “It’s been four years, and if they (Frequentis) can’t figure out in four years, are they going to figure it out?”
The recording of the meeting was released last month to the SouthtownStar after the newspaper challenged SouthCom’s denial of its request for the recording under Illinois’ freedom of information law.
The recording contains some of the strongest public criticism of the system designed by Frequentis, which got more than $9.1 million in dispatch system contracts in Florida and Maryland in 2012 despite the problems with the SouthCom system.
SouthCom, which is funded in part by taxpayers in its four towns, has paid Frequentis $864,000 so far and owes $1 million more in debt payments during the next six years.
“This is not a question of the ‘laptop isn’t working, throw it out and get a new one and pay $2,500 tops,’ ” Park Forest village manager Tom Mick said during the meeting. “I would guess we are probably looking at three quarters of a million dollars for a fix to go in a different direction.”
SouthCom chairman John Krull told the SouthtownStar last month that SouthCom planned to continue to work with Frequentis to improve the system, but he declined further comment.
Calls to Frequentis USA seeking comment for this story were not returned.
Persistent, major errors
The SouthtownStar reported in 2012 that the Frequentis software was having significant problems — prone to freezes, giving dispatchers the wrong 911 callback numbers and mishandling transferred calls to local police and fire departments, among other things.
At the time, SouthCom executive director Denise Pavlik and former SouthCom director Robert Wilcox, who had recommended Frequentis to the SouthCom’s board, downplayed the malfunctions. They said the glitches in the system, which was purchased in 2008, had been resolved or were being addressed.
But SouthCom officials were less optimistic about the system’s outlook by the May 2013 meeting.
“You have to judge the future by the past, and the past is not good,” Butz said at the meeting.
He said a glaring problem with the Frequentis system is that police officers in the SouthCom towns often are unable to share potentially important records with each other because of problems with the database.
“You’re going to have an incident one day (where it’s) essential to get the records from Olympia Fields or Matteson or Richton Park to apprehend a dangerous criminal or terrorist, and the system is going to fail,” Olympia Fields village manager David Mekarski said during the meeting.
SouthCom IT worker Kelly Pyles told SouthCom officials that the system was error-prone from the outset — programmed on a platform that’s not designed to handle data-heavy activity. And Pyles said Frequentis’ subsequent tweaks to the system had created new problems.
Butz said at the meeting that the SouthCom board was to blame in part for the mess because it should have hired a technology expert.
Weighing the options
The SouthCom board ended the May meeting talking about how it might get its money back from Frequentis.
“One of the final questions would be somewhere along the lines of, ‘This isn’t working for us and for that car that doesn’t work and it’s a lemon, you get your money back,’ ” Mick said. “Where do we get our money back? I think that’s a question we have to look at because … if we look at going in another direction, it does comes down to dollars and cents.”
Mick mentioned the possibility of suing Frequentis but pointed out that it might not be worth it financially and that SouthCom could lose a lawsuit. He said he wondered if SouthCom could get Frequentis to agree to a $250,000 refund.