Clare County 911 server issues becoming serious

August 3, 2012

There are few things more important in any county than its 911 service.

But for citizens in Clare County there are issues arising as the area’s 911 Central Dispatch has been increasingly suffering from network issues with their computers over the past three months.

Central Dispatch director Keith Yats and IT director Jim Neff spoke to the Clare County Board of Commissioners on the issue Wednesday afternoon during its Committee of the Whole meeting. They believe the issues stem from a software issue in the network’s server.

Before going into the details of the issue both Yats and Neff were quick to note that the network outages have not affected the ability for those in trouble to call 911.  Yats noted that the phone lines are on a separate system and when the server is down dispatchers handle the calls with paper instead of the computers.

“When the network goes down the 911 network still works,” Neff said.

He added that while they have alternatives the paper process is slower and the outages need to be dealt with. He said most of the outages have been occurring in the time period between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m.

“It makes it harder for  us to do our jobs,” Yats said, adding the outages can occur up to twice a week. “It’s a nightmare for the center.”

The dispatch center isn’t the only area affected when the network goes down. Yats added that when the network acts up it becomes impossible for dispatchers to track the locations of emergency responders, for police to run the license plates of anyone pulled over or for the system to be used to switch traffic lights to green to allow emergency vehicles a faster route to those in trouble.

Yats and Neff added the outages are becoming a more frequent issue. According to Yats when the first outages began occurring they would only last 45 minutes to one hour and then the system would be fine for two to three weeks. He added that since then the frequency has increased and they believe the server is dying which if it goes would take down all the department’s data back to 1996 although he added they have it backed up elsewhere.

Yats said the behavior of the server after they are able to bring it back online makes them think the issue is a software problem as opposed to a hardware one. Neff reports that the complicated nature of how the server is laid out is making it extremely hard to pinpoint the exact nature of the problem.

“There is no rhyme or reason to how the server is laid out,” Neff said. “It’s the only thing that goes all the way through.”

According to Neff the server had as of Wednesday been up for about eight days with no issues.

“I’m not saying it’s fixed,” Neff said. “I’m trying to find what the problem is.”

Neff said repairing the old server isn’t needed and Yats said the failing server is about a decade old and was already supposed to have been replaced. Both said Central Dispatch already has a new server to replace it on site to. The new server arrived in October but according to Yats and Neff they have been unable to get permission to install it due to interference from the Michigan State Police. The sheriff’s office has a network that connects to the MSP’s servers and Neff and Yats said they can’t switch over to the new server until they get permission from the state police.

“The communication just isn’t there,” Yats said of the MSP response adding he doesn’t know if the delay is being caused by a security issue.

According to Neff repairing the current server would require money from the board to bring in experts from the company they bought it from. Yats added the nature of 911 service means fixing the problem as soon as possible justifies any cost.

“When I have to answer to civilians what do I tell them,” Yats asked?

After hearing of the issue for the first time Wednesday the Board took immediate action. They planned on both making phone calls and sending letters to the MSP to try and get clearance to install the new server. Yats noted there is no guarantee the new server would end all of the system’s issues but said it would greatly help.

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