Leaders from Dallas’ fire rescue and police agencies say mistakes are being made and calls for service are being delayed as a result of the ransomware attack that has infiltrated the city’s systems for the past four days.
Jim McDade, president of the Dallas Fire Fighters Association, said Saturday that first responders have received little guidance from fire and city leadership after the group Royal compromised Dallas’ systems, hindering some services.
Both fire and police rank-and-file leaders said response times have slowed as first responders rely on backup plans amid widespread system outages. McDade said remarks made by City Manager T.C. Broadnax and other city officials about the effect of the attack on Dallas’ public-safety agencies aren’t accurate.
Broadnax said in a written statement Thursday that he was optimistic the risk was contained and emergency plans prepared in advance were paying off. City officials said the next day that “key public safety functions continue as usual” and police and fire are being “timely dispatched.”
“This is exactly what happened when COVID started three years ago,” McDade said. “We had zero guidance for two months. It’s inexcusable in my opinion.”
A city spokeswoman did not comment Saturday on the assertions that earlier remarks were inaccurate, or the comments about how employees have received little guidance and calls for service continue to be delayed. She said Broadnax’s full attention is on restoring services.
A Dallas Fire-Rescue spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a Saturday news release, city officials said Dallas is making “steady, measured progress with minimal service disruption” and the infection has been contained. The city said it has prioritized public safety and services including websites and payment and permitting systems, and “each device, webpage, and system will be brought back as soon as safely possible.”
Maddy Madrazo, a spokesperson for Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, said Saturday that their office is monitoring the situation and waiting for a briefing expected Monday by the city’s Information Technology Services department at the City Council’s public-safety committee meeting.
Both police and fire have resorted to conducting tasks manually and communicating over radio to dispatch first responders since the attack, which was first disclosed by the city Wednesday. Other services affected include 311, municipal courts and Dallas Water Utilities.
Residents have been directed to call 311 for service requests after its website and app were disrupted. Many city websites direct users back to a temporary site, and online payments to Dallas Water Utilities, public works and zoning could not be processed, the city has said.
Both police and fire association leaders noted response times have slowed.
McDade stressed that firefighters and paramedics aren’t refusing to go to calls. He said calls were being missed because of issues with the dispatch system.
Mistakes are being made, he said. Operators and first responders are communicating over radio, and radio traffic is so busy that messages are being missed and calls are slipping through the cracks, McDade said.
He said the attack has made for a more dangerous environment for first responders. With systems down, fire employees aren’t receiving in-route updates they normally would receive.
If a caller reports someone has a gun, the operator would usually enter that information into a system, which would then be conveyed in real-time to the responder. Now, fire employees are only told an address with minimal information that doesn’t help gauge the call’s level of severity.
“Is it a mess? Yes. Is it potentially bad? Very,” McDade said.
He said overtime is “through the roof,” and non-trained people from operations are being sent to dispatch because employees there are so overwhelmed.
“If you ask just a regular firefighter out there, he just knows that dispatch is down,” McDade said. “There’s also no way to communicate with everybody.”
The Dallas Police Department has also increasingly digitized its systems in recent years to make services more efficient. Chief Eddie García said in a statement earlier this week that Dallas police were “significantly impacted” by the ransomware attack.
He said the department’s computer-assisted dispatch system, the system used for offense reports and jail intake, DPD’s website and internal share drives and applications for personnel matters were all affected.
The Dallas Police Women’s Association, a group recently formed in the department, said on Twitter that “the leadership of an unnamed few” has helped first responders figure out workarounds amid the ransomware attack, but the problem has created “a serious issue for officer safety in patrol.”
“The first responders of Dallas, who put their lives on the line, absolutely deserve better,” the group said in a tweet.
Mike Mata, president of the Dallas Police Association, said Saturday that lower priority calls are likely holding for several days. He said the process has been slowed because officers have gone back to using pen and paper like they did in the 1990s.
“Problem is, some of these officers weren’t even born in the ′90s,” Mata said.
With systems down, 911 call-takers have been writing down information by hand to give to dispatchers, who communicate with officers over police radio, Mata said. Officers write down the information by hand, then look up the address to get to the call.
Officers have also had to fill out some reports resulting from the call by hand, a system which hasn’t been in place since about 2005, Mata said.
“There’s a lot of moving parts to this,” Mata said. “We still have officers out in the field, you can still get on the radio, your other officers can still hear you on the radio if you need help. The problem is the process has just been slowed down.”
Mata said he doesn’t believe the danger level for officers is raised. But, he said, there has been a communication issue between police and fire, with fire dispatched to wrong locations at times and ambulances delayed getting to scenes.
“They’re having the same delay situation that we are,” Mata said.
Mata said other major corporations also experience ransomware attacks, but it’s the precautions that each entity takes that can prevent it from happening and lessen the overall impact. Dallas needs to learn from the attack and improve its firewalls, he said.
“I don’t think anybody is out there short-serving the citizens on purpose,” Mata said. “I think we’re all trying to do the best that we can.”