Thursday, January 26, 2012
With shades drawn, the 911 dispatch center in Salinas is a dimly lit room save for the glow of computer monitors mapping as many as 3,000 calls a day.
With a $12 million upgrade to the public safety radio system underway, Monterey County’s new director of information technology has her work cut out for her. But the precise role I.T. will play in maintaining the new infrastructure once it’s up and running in 2013 is still uncertain.
“That’s a question that we are just starting to get our arms around,” County Emergency Dispatch Chief Lynn Diebold says.
I.T. Director Dianah Neff’s first day on the job was Jan. 17, less than two months after Diebold submitted a waiver request to the Federal Communications Commission. Diebold is asking for a six-month extension on the federally mandated Jan. 1, 2013 deadline to reduce the bandwidth taken up by emergency communications.
Supporting the next generation of emergency dispatch, or Next Gen, will be one of Neff’s highest priorities, County Administrative Officer Lew Bauman says.
The decade-old FCC mandate has become mired in market realities, as government bandwidth hasn’t yielded hoped-for revenues. But Neff has already faced the economic constraints of I.T. ideals.
During her five-year tenure in Philadelphia, Neff hoped to make it America’s first city with wireless Internet access everywhere. “Economically, the model collapsed,” Neff says of the initiative, which has since been abandoned.
Still, she’s proud of her accomplishments in forcing private providers to expand the range of service to low-income neighborhoods. “Would I take on that project today? No,” she says. “At that time, digital divide was the driver.”
After Neff left her Philadelphia post in 2006 to work for Atlanta-based Civitium, LLC—a company to which she’d directed five no-bid city contracts, totaling about $500,000—the Pennsylvania Ethics Commission investigated. The commission eventually absolved her of alleged conflict of interest, but found two unintentional violations of failure to disclose trip expenses and gave her a $500 fine.
“It’s not uncommon,” Neff says of the probe. “Philadelphia’s an extremely political city.”
After three years as a private consultant, Neff returns to the public sector at a $168,000 annual salary. “We did a thorough background check and there wasn’t any concern,” Bauman says.
Neff says she’s still passionate about wireless access, but it’s unlikely she’ll pursue an Internet-everywhere initiative in Monterey County. “We have 3,000 square miles of jurisdiction. We’re in a very different environment [than Philadelphia],” Bauman says.
Instead, Neff’s 118-person department is mostly an internal service operation for the county’s 4,000 computers. Neff and Bauman plan to virtualize the county's computing system, which Neff says could halve the cost of a desktop work system and double its life expectancy. But getting there could cost as much as $1 million up front—which would require a funding source outside of her $2 million annual operating budget.
Neff hopes even on a tight budget, she’ll be able to cut costs by shifting I.T.’s focus from dealing with repairs to building more efficient systems from the ground up.
“We don’t have the money to be able to do technology for technology’s sake,” she says, “but [virtualization] helps us reduce costs.”