Victorian emergency dispatch systems fail six times in eight months

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Victorian emergency dispatch systems fail six times in eight months

Report: Only a matter of time until systems failure end in tragedy.

Victoria’s triple-0 call centre operator has endured six outages to the state’s Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system in eight months, only narrowly avoiding tragic consequences during nearly eight hours of system inactivity.

Last week emergency services minister Kim Wells tabled a report into four outages at the Emergency Services Telecommunications Authority (ESTA) occurring between May and August 2013, one of which saw automated dispatch out-of-action for well over three hours.

In the days following the release, The Age reported two more outages, on 29 January and 1 February 2014.

ESTA has received more than $14 million since 2011 to upgrade its Intergraph CAD system from version 7.9.5. to version 9.1.1. and to add resiliency improvements along the way.

The authority blamed delays to the upgrade on a year-long industrial action by ESTA workers, who have refused to undergo workplace training amongst other things until the Victorian government agrees to improve salaries and working conditions.

“ESTA’s training program has been significantly disrupted by a lengthy industrial ban on training for call-taking and dispatch staff, and this priority and its implementation is affected by the industrial action. We are working to resolve this impact as soon as possible,” claimed the office of the emergency services commissioner, which authored the report.

The completion of the new software implementation has subsequently been pushed back from October 2013 to June 2014.

The report, authored by the office of the Victorian emergency services commissioner Michael Hallowes, only attributed two of the outages, on 30 May 1 August 2013, directly to the continued use of the outdated software.

The 17 June crash, which continued for 90 minutes, was traced back to an external contractor conducting routine maintenance, who inadvertently cause a network failure. The cause of the July outage has yet to be discovered.

The effect of extreme heat on the communications network has been put forward as one explanation for the latest outages.

In the absence of a usable CAD tool, ESTA dispatch officers are forced to revert to a “paper-based process used in the early 1990s” based on pieces of card physically transported by “runners” between phone operators and staff tasked with dispatching emergency vehicles.

Naturally the manual process takes far longer to conduct, with operators taking over 10 minutes to answer one emergency call in July, and nearly four minutes to help a patient reportedly having a seizure in June.

On several occasions it has taken the CAD system being switched back on for the team to realise that ambulances were not dispatched to some jobs at all during the outage.

While ESTA and the emergency services commissioner have been at pains to point out that no-one suffered “any loss, damage and/or adverse impact on health” as a result of the outages, they have acknowledged that the level of risk currently posed risk is unacceptable.

“The impact of CAD being unavailable during an identified peak time, such as AFL Grand Final Day, New Years Eve or Melbourne Cup Day, could have disastrous consequences. Similarly, extreme events, such as the Ash Wednesday or Black Saturday bushfires, would undoubtedly stretch manual operations beyond its limits,” the report said.

Victorian shadow emergency services minister Wade Noonan has called for another investigation into the state’s emergency communications systems on the back of the latest incidents in January and February.

“Emergency Services Minister Kim Wells needs to explain to Victorians why our triple-0 service has been plagued by problems and when the issues will be rectified,” he said in a statement.

Wells has responded to the findings of the report by endorsing a recommendation that will see the ESTA implement an alternative system cut in when the CAD system fails.

The agency was due to approach the market for an “end-to-end monitoring system” for its CAD infrastructure in November and says it will put in place a hardware lifecycle management program by 31 March 2014.

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