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Fire Dept. Project in ‘Crisis State,’ Mayor Says : Finance: Riordan asks for probe of communications system installation, which is years behind schedule and over budget. Chief acknowledges problems but says job is being ‘managed responsibly.’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mayor Richard Riordan has asked for an investigation of the Fire Department’s troubled efforts to install a $57-million state-of-the-art communications system, saying the project is in a “state of crisis.”

Funding for the ambitious project--which was supposed to be completed three years ago--was approved by city voters in a 1988 bond measure after a fatal fire in a Downtown high-rise.

But the project has become mired in cost overruns, software problems and a dispute with its principal contracting firm--which is asking for an additional $10 million to finish the job. City officials say they are preparing for possible legal action to force the contractor to complete the system.

“I am deeply concerned that this project get back on track as soon as possible,” Riordan said in a letter to Fire Chief Donald O. Manning and Wendell J. Meyer, general manager of the city’s Information Systems Department. “The demise of the (project) is another disaster the city cannot afford.”

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In the strongly worded letter dated Dec. 20, the mayor said the project was in a crisis and suggested that he was not receiving all pertinent information from fire officials.

“I am also requesting that the CAO assign an independent audit team to uncover the true status of this project,” Riordan said.

Manning acknowledged that the communications system has “some difficult issues to overcome” but disagreed with the mayor about the scope of the problem. “The issues themselves do not constitute a state of crisis,” the chief told Riordan in a Dec. 28 letter.

"(The) project has been and is continuing to be managed responsibly and intelligently under turbulent technological and economic periods,” Manning wrote.

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Meyer acknowledged in an interview that the project is beset with problems but declined to say how serious they are.

“I don’t want to define what a crisis is,” said Meyer, whose department is helping to prepare the city to maintain the system once it is completed.

City Administrative Officer Keith Comrie said it is not unusual for such projects to fall behind schedule.

Two reports by Comrie’s office and the city controller last week found that several other bond-financed projects, some approved in 1989, have become bogged down in bureaucratic tangles. Among them was an upgrading of the Police Department’s 911 system.

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Still, Riordan is particularly troubled that the expensive Fire Department project is not only behind schedule but is 67% over its budget, said Deputy Mayor Michael Keeley.

“Fifty-seven million (dollars) is a lot of money,” Keeley said, “and it needs to be watched.”

Adding to the problem, Systemhouse Inc.--the primary contractor--is requesting an additional $10 million for installing what it contends were extra software programs requested by the Fire Department, according to Manning’s letter. The chief expressed confidence in his letter that the department could negotiate with Systemhouse and avoid the extra $10-million charge.

Officials with Systemhouse were unavailable for comment Wednesday.

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To help prepare the city in case it has to take legal action against Systemhouse, Keeley said, the city attorney’s office has retained the KPMG Peat Marwick consulting firm to study all aspects of the project.

That study will be forwarded to Riordan in lieu of the audit that he originally requested from the city’s administrative officer. The mayor was unaware that the city attorney had retained the firm when he wrote his letter, Keeley said.

Efforts to fund the system through a ballot measure gained momentum after a May, 1988, fire at the Downtown First Interstate building. During the highly publicized blaze, which left one person dead and 40 others injured, firefighters were hampered by radio transmission problems.

After an aggressive campaign by proponents, Los Angeles voters approved the bond measure, known as Proposition N, in November of that year. A homeowner with a 1,500-square-foot house would pay about $8 a year more in property taxes for about 10 years to pay for the project.

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The communications system would be among the most advanced ever developed for any fire department. Among other functions, it would employ the latest technology to pinpoint locations of units on lighted map boards at the City Hall emergency center and automatically guide firetrucks to scenes by mapping routes on computer screens inside the cabs.

Fire commanders also would receive updates on those screens as they responded to emergencies, thus preventing a common occurrence in major disasters--jammed radio frequencies because of excessive talking.

Assistant Fire Chief Tom Curry, who is overseeing the project, said that the bulk of it has been completed and that the entire system could be operating by December.

The most expensive aspect of the system--1,100 radios bought for $27 million and a high-frequency radio system--has been in operation for about three years, Curry said. He added that another major portion--a $17-million upgrading of dispatch terminals and installation of personnel computers in fire stations--also was completed about three years ago.

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The main problem has been with the software designed to run the system, which failed to perform when it was turned on in January, 1992.

“Frankly,” Curry said, “when it failed, we didn’t know what to do.”

Since then, Systemhouse has been trying to redesign the more than 600,000 programming lines that run the system.


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