Cincinnati dumping 911 system subcontractor after year-plus of problems

Councilman urges lawsuit

CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati is dumping its 911 system vendor after at least a year of problems. In some cases, callers got a busy signal or were dropped.

A councilman said Monday he wants the city to consider suing.

"WCPO's been on this case for a long time, and to have people calling 911 and having massive delays or a total outage and blockage is completely unacceptable," Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld said. "So, to me, there needs to be some restitution."

The WCPO I-Team first uncovered problems at Cincinnati's 911 center beginning in 2013, including low staffing, inadequate training and, last October, call routing from cellphones.

Jayson Dunn, the city's director of information technology, said the most recent problem struck July 18: People couldn't hear the audio on incoming and outgoing calls, and it took three hours to fix.

Another problem -- Police Chief Eliot Isaac called it a "critical failure" -- stopped 911 calls from reaching Cincinnati's Emergency Communications Center for more than 20 minutes Jan. 5.

Dunn detailed the most serious issues in a presentation late last month. In all, there have been five major problems this year, as well as several last year.

Cincinnati's 911 calls have been handled through a Cincinnati Bell subcontractor for the past eight years. The city paid Bell more than $1 million at the start of the contract in 2009. At that point, Cincinnati Bell's subcontractor was MicroData, but that company has been bought and sold several times since.

Dunn said the latest subcontractor, Comtech, hasn't been reliable and shows no promise of getting better. The city is working on finalizing a contract with a new vendor, spokesman Rocky Merz said.

Sittenfeld wants the city's law department to look at suing Comtech for all the problems. Fifteen of 18 southwest Ohio 911 centers use Comtech, according to Dunn.

"Their failure in serving the City of Cincinnati (as well as other communities) is gravely serious, and they must be held accountable," Sittenfeld wrote in a letter to City Manager Harry Black and City Solicitor Paula Boggs Muething.

"I think a lot of people owe all of our citizens and all of our constituents an apology," Sittenfeld said Monday. "You deserve better -- especially in this situation where you might be calling in a life-or-death situation, where minutes matter, where seconds matter. People deserve the highest level of service delivery. They haven’t gotten it."

WCPO has reached out to Cometch for comment.

Sittenfeld also wants the city to create a volunteer advisory board of IT experts, to help with technology issues.

As the I-Team first detailed last year, operators also have to battle against calls from cellphones directed to the wrong emergency communications center. There are five 911 call centers in or near Cincinnati, and cellphone towers don't always send the call to the right place.

About 91 percent of Cincinnati's 911 calls come from cellphones, according to Dunn.

The problem is so serious Mayor John Cranley wrote to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai. He wants the FCC to mandate that wireless carriers cooperate with local governments on call routing.

Anyone who can't get through by dialing 911 can call the city's Emergency Communications Center directly, at 513-765-1212.

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