If you live in South Portland you got a letter today about the address change, it doesn't tell you WHY the address is changing is simply another example of our failed IT system at the city level.

Writer’s Note: this was originally published here, I’m migrating it to this new platform.

For residents who are new to Portland or who haven't paid attention to Portland's many political scandals, they may not be aware of our many atrocious scandals of when the City of Portland decides to build a new computer system.

In this case, the system at fault is the Bureau of Emergency Communications (BOEC) and the Bureau of Technology Services (BTS).

Both of these groups have had problems before, especially with our emergency dispatching and call routing system (911).

This problems of our 911 goes all the way back to 2004. The rise of cell phones lead to a rise of pocket dialing 9-1-1, and to address this cities across the country began adopting new technologies meant to screen out accidental pocket dials. Portland adopted the "Reno Solution", a technology developed by the esteemed law enforcement professionals of Reno, Nevada. We're not really sure WHY we went with this system, after an investigation into it all of the supporting documentation was gone, no one could produce records as to why this was a good idea versus other system. But the system it's self is simple: to screen out pocket calls, cell phones dialing 911 would be routed to this system where a person would have to verbally confirm they're trying to dial 911 or dial any number, then be connected to a dispatcher.

The system had a glaring problem through: not everyone got through the system. According to the BTS they knew this would be a problem back when it was implemented and even informed BOEC, but BOEC took no action. Reno 911 was, after all, an acclaimed system, a new television show had just premiered about their capabilities as law enforcement professionals.

For **over 10 years** our 911 system was hanging up on people dialing 911 from a cell phone or delaying them from talking to emergency dispatchers, BOEC knew about this problem, and actively lied to the City Council about it to hide from accountability and protect their system. In essence, BOEC simply ignored approximately 75% of their incoming calls which came from cell phones when reporting to the City Commissioners about their system. Moreover, rather than a "small lie", they instead went further and boldly claimed that nearly 100% of their call were answered in compliance with Federal Standards - arrogantly bold lies to the public - in fact their compliance was only 29% of calls being answered within 10 seconds, not the 90% we need to be in compliance.

This isn't trivial. Portlanders likely died. Homes burnt down. People in emergencies couldn't get through. And if you could get through, the average wait time was nearly 9 minutes if you called 911 on a cell phone.

It wasn't until a whistle blower, Lisa St. Helen, then Operations Manager at BOEC, went above the head of then Bureau Director Lisa Turley, and contacted Steve Novick's policy director in 2015 about the problem. Director Turley knew of this problem for at least 18 months (probably much longer) and didn't change their reporting or take action. This spurred an investigation leading to a 2016 City Ombudsmen report and investigation.

Meanwhile, in the middle of an unrolling scandal, BOEC got funding from the State of Oregon to begin building a new 911 system in March 2017.

Lisa Turley "retired" from her role as Buearu Director in March 2017 when it was very clear this whole thing fell on her shoulders, all the same, she got $40,000 to stay on for 3 months as a "highly paid analyst." Amanda Fritz deflected blame from BOEC saying this was a staffing issue (it wasn't) while Mayor Wheeler said he believed that data problems in the 911 office are "more serious than it has been characterized" and that he did not believe the cause was a staffing problem. Before retiring Turley told The Merc "she didn’t know of the problem until [the Ombudsmen] investigation" although the actual investigation showed that statement to be false.

As Wheeler was aware of at the time, over 50% of calls to 9-1-1 are "disorder" calls about the homeless and non-criminal activities and simply creating a new call center for those calls would solve a lot of problems. If BOEC was too understaffed to answer calls, they wouldn't have objected to off loading some of those calls to AMR. Ultimately this is why we got a 3-1-1 system. And guess who implemented 3-1-1 for us? Lisa Turley.

It's our modern 9-1-1 system, first implemented in 2017, which is the heart of our problem today. It's just important to keep in mind that this system was being built by the same people who willfully lied to the public and put all of us at risk. It was built by people who are fundamentally incompetent.

What spurred the new Sixth Sextant project?

The City's PR team has one story: the zero in addresses causes problems, like 0219 SW Abernethy Street would be changed to 219 S Abernethy.

Portland transportation officials said first responders are pushing for the change.

"This is a high priority for the fire bureau," said Dylan Rivera, a transportation spokesman, "and we've tried to be responsive to them."

According to city records, the leading zero addresses are such an issue that emergency responses have to be trained "on this non-conventional addressing protocol."

This change will improve customer service by eliminating the need to manually verify leading "zero addresses with 9-1-1 callers, thereby shortening 9-1-1 call times and potentially reducing 9-1-1 callers' wait times during peak times," city documents show.

Portland estimates the name change would cost at least $305,000 to implement.

However that's clearly not the case. The actual reason can be found on the City's Q&A website.

Multiple databases and information technology applications have difficulty with the leading zero address or are simply do not support leading zero addresses. **As a recent example, testing of the City’s new 9-1-1 telephone software found that only leading zero addresses failed testing.** While the City would not upgrade this software without first resolving this issue, the need for information technology workarounds is increasingly problematic, and still results in additional 9-1-1 dispatching steps when the software works as intended. These additional dispatching steps to confirm correct addressing take valuable time from 9-1-1 dispatchers, and more importantly are often stressful to 9-1-1 callers, who may simply be unable to ascertain their correct location. We have also received reports from property owners who were unable to enter a leading zero address on line.

So this whole $300,000 mess is because some IT project manager at the City didn't realize it was a requirement that the address field would need to have Zeros.

But wait, maybe this is this is an uncommon problem? Maybe it is easy to forget that some address fields have a zero in them.

Nope. FFS, zip codes in the North Eastern US start with zero! This is a simple database issue - like you might see this same problem in an Excel where you try to store a field as a "Number" instead of text and so it drops the zeros. The solution here is simple: you don't use that field for calculations and instead view it as text.

This whole excuse of having to verify verbally "Zero Two One Seven" instead of just 'Two One Seven" is completely asinine. Especially in the modern age where e911 services track your cell phones location as soon as you call. Collecting accurate address information isn't entirely necessary.

Basically, $300k for what is ultimately no different than Excel problem, and me and my neighbors get an address change.


This is just one of many technology problems the City of Portland has had over the last 20 years, including the Water Bureau's software fiasco in 2000, a citywide payroll system that tripled in cost to $47.4 million in 2010, and the the city's paperless permitting system which is still troubled. And data base problems are no surprise, given that Portland Public Schools once awarded $147 million dollars to the wrong people due to an Excel calculation error.



Writers note: in the original piece there was some interesting comments including:

If we didn’t do this now, the next story will be about how Portland spent $300k to customize various systems in the city to allow the leading zero to work. And then, this thread would be about how corrupt and wasteful the city is for keeping leading zeros in a small subset of the city. …. It is just a simple excel problem, they’ll say. How can the city spend $300k to make sure systems can accept the leading zero?! … You can’t win.

These aren't the only weird address systems across Portland though. Every city has quirky address schemes, or roads that change names arbitrarily, or roads that dead end physically but continue on paper, natural roads used by early settlers before grid system numbering was assigned, we have address numbers that have letters in them, distinct roads that go by similar names like Road, Street, and Drive. For example, SW Montgomery is 3 different pathways, all near each other, with a similar overlapping number scheme - that's also got to be a pain for delivery drivers and 911.

Moreover, a TON of quirks come up for emergency services. Imagine some old guy says he was attacked "On front street" or there was a car accident on "North Portland blvd" or "39th." Police and dispatchers learning these things because it very common in each city to have problems with the grid, not least of which is name changes.

And for the next 10 years residents in the area are still likely to dial 911 and give their South West address, with or without the zero. Which really won't matter because with or without "south" or "south west" the numbering scheme points to the same locations, I haven't found any duplicate addresses. A resident visiting this small community won't know it's "South" versus "South West."

The way to solve this problem is to make extraordinarily flexible IT systems.


It's not the people who live there, it's the people who are trying to get there, and software behind the people and goods trying to get there. … I don't believe that the city's 911 system is the only software with the issue …

Except, in my research and experience, the zero is completely unnecessary for shipping. I'm not saying definitely that there is no duplicate address, but to date I have yet to find a 568 and a 0568 as both valid addresses of buildings. In fact the nearest I can find is SW Gibbs St, as there is a 100 block on two locations. Technically there's a 100 block and a 0100 block, but most resident's homes in the 0100 block don't have addresses reflecting this, and never bothered attaching a zero to the outside of their home.

This isnt a new problem, John's Landing has been around since 1911(?) and before Barbur Blvd and I5 existed.

It's really only become a problem because of computer systems, but only select computer systems, like portlands 911. There a huge software suite of tools and extensions in the market today to verify addresses, these companies specialize in knowing these little quirks across the country. Any business in shipping uses these tools.

Honestly, I think the problem is as simple as the DBA making a mistake in their data system and running address numbers as calculated fields. This is very possibly because Portland's 911 system on the back end uses State Data Plane, a legacy coordination system used by GIS instead of Lat/Long. If you run reports from the PPB's data system, you'll see the street address number is broken out from the physical street when exported to .CSV. This is, I think, the heart of the issue.

Edit: as far as computer programming goes leading zeros and negative numbers are a real thing in addresses that programmers might forget about from time to time.

(Writer’s note, I’ve subsequently completed a more exhaustive search of the SW/S numbering scheme before reconfiguration competition and never identified a single overlapping address with a leading zero, and one without a leading zero - for example, 111 SW Street and finding a 0111 SW Street; at some point in Portland’s history someone seemed to have renumbered these with an offset, so that 0111 became 0113.)