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DCC continues to work through issues

A $15 million dollar investment. A projected 400,000 calls per year. A 25,000 square foot facility. More than 60 employees. And one big mess.

The Dakota Communications Center, the central 911 dispatch center for Dakota County, went online in late December of last year and has had its share of problems in the months since.

At various times the center has temporarily lost the ability to answer 911 calls, call-takers have had to switch to writing down information with pencils when a computer input system went down, fire department pagers have struggled to get reception and severe weather sirens have failed to activate properly, or gone off when they shouldn't.

But it's not all bad news. Issues that have arisen have been addressed relatively quickly, and the problems seem to be declining.

"We're better today than we were six months ago, but not as good as we want to be six months from now," DCC Executive Director Kent Therkelsen said.

The DCC consolidated five 911 centers from throughout Dakota County. Each one had a somewhat different way of operating, which has made it a challenge to streamline things at the DCC, Therkelsen said.

"We're now in our seventh month, and we're learning every day," Therkelsen said. "This is as big an undertaking as Dakota County has ever done in terms of infrastructure.

"It has to be completely reliable," he said. "That's the challenge we accept and work toward every day."

Therkelsen will be the first to admit, however, that it's not there yet.

According to minutes from a recent DCC Board of Directors meeting, on May 5, the DCC lost the ability to answer 911 calls for about seven minutes, which affected four incoming calls. The same thing happened May 6 for two minutes, this time affecting two calls.

The calls were popping up on the dispatchers' screens, but due to a software glitch, dispatchers weren't able to actually answer them.

Once the system came back online May 5, DCC staff was able to return the calls, which they found out originated from accidental calls from cell phones (which Therkelsen said is a fairly common occurrence) and one animal complaint in Rosemount.

When DCC staff returned one of the missed calls from May 6, no one answered. Police officers were dispatched to the residence from which the call originated and found a man who had fallen. He did not need medical transport.

DCC staff contacted the software vendor, Independent Emergency Services, immediately after the problem occurred May 5, and on the morning of May 6 they were contacted by the company about the problem. IES technicians were on-site at the DCC for several days following the incident and attributed the problems to a computer configuration problem, and a software patch that was needed.

Three times from Jan. 22 to Feb. 5, the Computer-Aided Dispatch program that allows dispatchers to enter information from 911 callers into their computers, went down. During those malfunctions, dispatchers switched to taking down information with pencils.

"A manual process is going to be somewhat slower than our automated process," Therkelsen said. "It probably had some impact on the speed of the call delivery to the field."

There was a backup system in place in case the CAD system went down. It required about two hours of work, however, to get it up and running. The DCC has since worked with Local Government Information Systems, the software provider, and now has a better system that switches over immediately.

There are several other backup systems built into the DCC in other areas that make sure 911 calls are never lost. If vital systems go down, redundancies are there that route those calls to 911 centers in other counties, such as Carver and Ramsey.

Another major change that came with the DCC was the $3.8 million purchase of the new 800 MHz radio system the county's public safety agencies are now all operating on. The 800 MHz radios provide easier and clearer interagency communication than the VHF radios used before.

Since the DCC went online on Dec. 27, 2007, the center has handled more than 264,000 911 calls.

Those originating from Farmington make up an average of about 1360 per month, and total just over 8,000. The bulk of those calls are for law enforcement, with the rest for fires or medical emergencies.

The county's High Performance Partnership, which seeks ways in which cities in Dakota County can work together and share resources to work toward common goals, identified creating the DCC as a way to save money.

It's projected that through personnel and operations cost savings, the DCC will save the county and its cities $2.4 million in the first three years it's operational.

"So overall, it saves ... all Dakota County communities money," said Hastings City Council Member Mike Slavik, who's also a member of the DCC Board of Directors. "So it's good for the taxpayer."