When It's Life or Death, Some 911 Systems Turn To Linux

By Dan Orzech

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The last straw for Sherman Stebbins was when one of his computers froze up while an emergency dispatcher was directing an ambulance to a house where a baby who had stopped breathing. "She was trying to give CPR instructions and fight with her computer at the same time," recalls Stebbins, information systems director for the St. George, Utah police department.

Shortly after that, Stebbins switched the department's six dispatch computers from Microsoft Windows 95, which was crashing on almost a daily basis, to Red Hat Linux.

Since November, 1998 the 911 system for both St. George, and surrounding Washington County, has been running on Linux. Recently, both the city jail and the police department's detectives have started to use Linux as well.

While the low cost of Linux makes it attractive, the big draw for IT managers like Stebbins is its reliability. The machines in the St. George 911 center are in use 24 hours a day, seven days a week, says Stebbins. One of the systems has been running continuously for nearly a year and a half.

Vendors lean towards Unix or Windows -- Not Linux
But St. George is the exception. Very few of the several dozen companies which make computer-aided dispatch software for 911 systems sell their products on Linux.

"Every interface you see today at public safety trade shows is Windows," says Gary Allen, publisher of Dispatch Monthly, a magazine covering the public safety dispatching industry.

More than 80% of police departments in the U.S. have fewer than 25 officers, according to Allen. That means they're too small to have their own IT departments, so they rely on the vendors to choose the technology. And most of the vendors seem to be leaning towards either Microsoft Windows or a commercial flavor of Unix.

"There's no reason we couldn't run on Linux," says Jerry Hotho, IT manager at Geac Public Safety, a 911 software vendor in Tampa, Flor., "but we've never installed any systems on it."

Another software vendor, Tiburon, Inc, in Fremont, Calif., has not seen "an overwhelming customer requirement for Linux," according to Michael Tilson, the firm's vice-president of products and technology. "None of our Unix products have been ported to Linux," he says. "At this point our product roadmap does not have Linux as a consideration, and our focus is on Microsoft .NET."

Insisting on Linux
A few customers, however, are asking specifically for Linux. When the city of Bloomington, Ind., issued a request for proposal for a new dispatch system recently, it specified Linux as the underlying operating system.

That's because Bloomington had been happily running older dispatch software on Linux since 1999, says Rick Routon, the manager of the city's user support and operations group. While the existing dispatch system had worked well, the company making it had sold it, and the new owner was not updating the Linux version.

In response to its RFP, Bloomington received proposals for dispatch systems on Windows and Unix, says Routon, but none for Linux. One of the vendors, however -- Logistic Systems, of Missoula, Mont. -- which does a lot of its development work on Linux, agreed to port its system to Linux. Bloomington purchased its software, and is now in the process of cutting over to the new system.

That has to be done carefully, says Routon, because the dispatch center runs around the clock, handling police, fire and ambulance calls for both the city of Bloomington and the residents of surrounding Monroe County -- 85,000 people in all. The police department's 22 dispatchers are always active says Routon: in a typical year, they handle some 7,000 ambulance calls alone.

Three years ago, when Bloomington first began using Linux, it had to pretty much assemble its own servers, says Routon. Since then, he says, "the world has really become accustomed to Linux." This time, the city was able to buy off-the-shelf hardware from IBM. The new system will run on an IBM dual-CPU Intel-based X-series server, with 512 MB of memory.

Like St. George, Utah, Bloomington has found Linux to be extremely reliable. The city has one server which has been up for more than 600 days, says Routon.

That level of reliability, together with Linux' low cost, may be the deciding factors in other dispatch centers beginning to use Linux.

In the small town of Chappaqua, N.Y., for example, which is located near New York city -- and whose 15,000 residents include President and Senator Clinton -- the volunteer ambulance company recently shifted its dispatch system from Windows to Linux.

The decision was made by the local programmers who maintain the system, says Warren Hart, a Chappaqua resident who volunteers as an emergency medical technician with the ambulance company. "They said, 'it works, it's reliable, and we don't have to pay for it,'" recalls Hart.

Since the ambulance company is entirely funded by donations, the low cost was a plus, says Hart. But the most important factor is that the system works when it's needed.

When a call comes in, the system sends a page to the volunteers on duty. "It's a pretty simple system," Hart says, "but one that can literally be a matter of life or death. If it doesn't work, we have a problem."