MONTPELIER — The Department of Public Safety has pulled the plug — at least temporarily — on a new computer assisted dispatch and records system for Vermont State Police and many local and county police agencies across the state.
The move came after department Commissioner Michael Schirling struggled Tuesday afternoon to explain the apparent meltdown that the system, known as Valcour, had earlier this week when it was rolled out to about two-dozen law enforcement agencies.
The rollout group included the 10 state police field offices, Department of Public Safety headquarters, and the entire Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. The affected municipal agencies were spread throughout Vermont and ranged from the 17-member Williston Police down to the part-time police departments in Canaan and Brighton. Also affected were some active sheriff’s departments, including in Grand Isle and Essex counties.
Some Vermont police agencies are on Valcour, but the when the new departments were added Sunday, it appeared to be too much.
The Valcour system became so bogged down statewide that Col. Matthew Birmingham, director of the Vermont State Police, emailed his troopers late Monday afternoon, encouraging them to refrain from proactive police work, including traffic stops.
Birmingham said the state’s two consolidated Public Safety Answering Points in Williston and Westminster were swamped with work. He said radio transmissions and phone calls were not helping the emergency dispatchers maintain their ongoing workload.
Gov. Phil Scott was asked about the problem at his weekly press conference Tuesday afternoon, but apparently had not been fully briefed. He punted to Schirling, who downplayed the issue. He disputed a question that noted there had been documented problems as far back as April when an initial limited rollout happened.
“There is a technical issue that has arisen beginning late yesterday,” Schirling told news reporters.
“I would beg to differ on whether there have been any concerns about the ongoing rollout to this point,” Schirling said. He said teams were working to correct the problem.
Schirling did confirm that he was part of a public/private coordinated effort to launch Valcour when he was the police chief in Burlington back in about 2010. He said he has had no involvement with IT public safety for about seven years.
Scott promised to have his administration provide records about the bid process and selection of Valcour.
About a half hour after the news conference ended, an email on behalf of Schirling was sent to law enforcement throughout Vermont reporting that DPS was pulling the plug on Valcour for the time being. The various law enforcement agencies were told they should resume using the previous records system known as Spillman.
“We do not have a timeline for any future changes at this stage but will share it as soon as the technical and operational teams have identified next steps,” Schirling said in an email circulated by Kelly Nolan, an IT project manager for the Vermont Agency of Digital Services.
Local police, county sheriffs and state law enforcement reported the conversion was poor Sunday and only got worse as more police personnel began work Monday.
Grand Isle County Sheriff Ray Allen said his deputies Monday had reverted back to using paper and pen to record interactions with motorists and other people because the system was slow and overloaded.
Williston Police Chief Patrick Foley said it was frustrating for the officers on the road making stops and responding to other complaints.
He said his daytime dispatcher had created his own hand-written police log to track information and would try to enter information into Valcour when it was not bogged down.
“It kept slowing down,” said Foley, a former police chief in Windsor. He said the Williston officers were trying to deal with a child custody fight in the middle of dealing with the trying uncooperative computer system. “It kept freezing up. It was not operational.”
The same happened in Northfield, according to Police Chief John Helfant.
“I know my dispatcher was pulling her hair out,” Helfant said.
Police Chiefs Peter Mantello in Castleton and William Humphries in Fair Haven reported similar issues.
“It didn’t go smooth. People were losing information,” Martello said.
“It was difficult and slow. We just had trouble logging in,” Humphries said.
Winhall Police and Rescue Chief Derrick Tienken echoed their comments.
“It was definitely bogged down and slow to use,” Tienken said. The department is back to using Spillman for processing information.
Essex County Sheriff Trevor Colby said the Valcour system also has some flaws. It is designed to make more work for the officers in the field while they are trying to resolve issues. He said instead of registration and license information going up on the computer screen when the dispatcher runs the information, the deputy has to enter it out on the road.
“The more work on their end is frustrating,” Colby said.