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10 Tips for a Smooth CAD Upgrade

Written by Kevin Corbley

According to members of the Howard County, Md. Public Safety Technology Support Team, who are veterans of multiple CAD upgrade projects, the main difference between an upgrade that goes smoothly and one that doesn’t is good planning. The team, an interdepartmental cooperative group who together support technology projects for the Police, Fire, Detention and Sheriff Departments, sat down with Intergraph after their county’s most recent CAD upgrade, to share a few of the lessons they have learned over the years.

Dave Stough, a Senior Technical Manager for Intergraph’s Security, Government & Infrastructure Division -- also a veteran of many public safety CAD implementations – offered his insights from the vendor’s perspective. Following are 10 tips to ensure your next CAD upgrade proceeds smoothly, and is completed on time and on budget.

1) Don’t wait too long between CAD upgrades.

That’s the Howard County team’s number one tip. They explained that it’s tempting to skip an upgrade or two in the hopes of saving money, but this can cost more in the long run. The main problem with skipping versions of a CAD product is the speed with which the technology is changing. From one version to the next, there are changes in the database schema, operating system, and user interface. Big changes create a steeper learning curve for the call-takers and dispatchers. Skipping versions and upgrades widens the knowledge gap for personnel in the PSAP and means they have more to learn. This dramatically increases the time – and money – that must be invested in training as part of the next upgrade. If paying for every new CAD release is a budgeting concern, ask your vendor if upgrade expenses can be built into annual maintenance contracts so some of the total costs will already be covered once upgrade time arrives.

2) Determine your level of involvement well in advance of the upgrade.

PSAPs should talk with their CAD vendors long before the next upgrade to determine how much technical support they will need during the installation and cutover. There are a few counties that have the IT capabilities to handle the internal technical issues that arise during the process, but most do not. Most PSAPs that have been through an upgrade realize they need additional vendor support during the cutover, and in the week or two following, when unexpected issues may arise. According to the Howard County team, the rule of thumb is to consider how smoothly your last upgrade proceeded and pinpoint any problem areas you experienced. Generally speaking, it will be during those same phases of the next upgrade that you will need extra onsite support from the vendor’s team.

3) Budget beyond the cost of the upgrade itself.

The cost to purchase and install the latest CAD software version is one part of the overall investment needed to keep your system up to date. The other expense you must budget for is overtime pay for training and testing. Every person working in the 9-1-1 center will need some level of training on the new system, with call-takers and dispatchers requiring the most time. Keep in mind that these people must continue to work their regular shifts, and extra time must be set aside for training. Often overlooked is the need to set up assigned teams to test the new CAD. These individuals will also require dedicated time outside of their normal shifts to put the new system through its paces.

4) Build more testing time into the schedule than you think you’ll need.

The Howard County Team suggested the subtitle for this tip should be “Test, Test, Test.” Every CAD upgrade is unique because every PSAP has its own deployment plans and interface preferences, and there are always an enormous number of data translations to complete and reconfigure. Before cutover to the new system occurs, personnel must run the CAD through as many scenarios as possible – both the mundane and the extraordinary. It’s a mistake to think that every test will run flawlessly. And keep in mind that when something goes awry during a test, it has to be fixed and tested again. This takes time. Plan to assign at least two dedicated people to every shift in the weeks before cutover to test the upgrade in parallel operations with the live CAD system. “Nothing tests the upgrade better than running it through real-world scenarios as they occur live,” added Intergraph’s Dave Stough.

5) Don’t leave ‘Go/No Go’ decisions until the last minute.

A good rule of thumb is to plan for the upgrade to be ready several weeks before actual cutover. Once sign-off occurs, there should be no more major changes until cutover. This extra time is reserved for uninterrupted training and testing, and gives you the flexibility to stop the countdown in case there are issues, or major fixes that must be made and re-tested. In these cases, the cutover date should be postponed for as many days or weeks as the delay consumed, and all participants should be prepared to reset the countdown clock.

6) Anticipate what might go wrong.

“The vendor and CAD operator must ask honest questions of each other about how interruptions will impact the overall schedule,” said Stough, and problems will arise. For instance, what will the vendor and operator do if a third-party hardware supplier can’t make a promised delivery? Or what if a natural disaster strikes during the upgrade, an unfortunate occurrence Stough has witnessed more than once. Agreements and work-around plans must be in place to deal with similar issues before the upgrade ever begins. Likewise, the PSAP must look at its internal schedule and anticipate unrelated problems that may coincide with the upgrade. Transfers, re-assignments, and retirements of key personnel can wreak havoc on a training schedule just as badly as scheduling a cutover during the most popular vacation month. Not every stumbling block can be anticipated, but many can be avoided if senior personnel do their best to gaze into the future and remember which months traditionally have the least drama.

7) Don’t tie other projects in with the CAD upgrade.

Some people prefer to experience pain all at once, but this is a risky CAD upgrade strategy. The upgrade itself is complicated enough without compounding it with simultaneous external factors that may slow down the entire project, especially if those factors are outside of the immediate control of the PSAP. Howard County, Md., for instance, tied its last upgrade with a move to a new building. When construction was delayed, the upgrade process ground to a halt along with it. Other PSAPs have incorrectly assumed the best time to enhance and change police and fire deployment plans is during the CAD upgrade. However, modifying too many variables at once confuses the testing process by making it difficult to determine the true source of any problems. Keep it simple and focus on the CAD upgrade, recommends the Howard County Team.

8) Consider hardware upgrade requirements along with the CAD upgrade.

This may seem to contradict the tip above, but it may actually be preferable. In order to take full advantage of new capabilities in software, installation of new hardware may be required. The vendor can help the PSAP evaluate what hardware, if any, should be changed out. To avoid the “too many variables” issue discussed above, the PSAP might consider installing and testing the new hardware immediately before the CAD system is implemented. Once the hardware checks out, upgrading on a completely separate system makes testing and cutover much easier, saving personnel costs and improving the quality of testing.

9) Keep shifts for technical folks to a reasonable length.

As the cutover date approaches, there is always the temptation to keep technical personnel working through their assigned shift right into the next one. That may not cause problems if it happens once, but if personnel start working 16- to 20-hour days for a week, their focus and productivity will decline substantially. Mistakes will be made just when you can least afford them. Keep these technical people working shifts similar in time and length to what is normal for them.

10) Start planning now for the next upgrade.

The best time to start planning for the next upgrade is right after the current one is completed. Since most PSAPs have to present budget projections 18 to 24 months in advance to their governing bodies, the PSAP should begin talks with the CAD vendor early in the process to accurately project the cost of future upgrades. To benefit from what you learned in your current upgrade, keep a written journal of the process while the upgrade is proceeding. Make notes on what you like about the process and what you don’t. Ask key personnel to do the same throughout the process, and when the cutover happens, collate all comments and recommendations into a single written “lessons learned” document to ensure your process improvements are taken into account during future upgrades. Kevin Corbley is a business consultant specializing in the geospatial technologies. He may be reached at www.corbleycommunications.com.

Published in Public Safety IT, Jan/Feb 2012

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