Mayor to tech company: Dispatch system failures ‘unacceptable’

EVERETT — Mayor Ray Stephanson heard about the dispatching failures during Everett’s recent three-alarm warehouse fire, and he’s not happy.

Stephanson on Wednesday sent a pointed letter to New World, the technology company responsible for Snohomish County’s balky 8-month-old emergency dispatching software.

In the letter, he referred to the troubles as “simply unacceptable” and said continued problems could put people in danger.

“I am concerned that the lack of a consistently reliable system is leaving our crews and residents vulnerable to serious risks,” Stephanson wrote.

The New World software glitched out during the June 4 warehouse fire in Everett. The glitch resulted in the delayed dispatching of backup firefighting crews for nearly 23 minutes, public records show.

Stephanson asked New World managers to respond to him with plans to make it right. As of Thursday evening, that hadn’t happened. The Daily Herald obtained a copy of the mayor’s letter through a public records request.

The warehouse fire glitch, which was blamed on a malfunctioning computer screen button, was the latest wrinkle in years of delays and disputes involving the New World project in Snohomish County.

The New World contract is managed through two local 911 centers, SNOPAC in Everett and SNOCOM in Mountlake Terrace. Together, they provide dispatching to nearly every police and fire department in the county.

The New World company, of Michigan, was sold last year to Texas-based Tyler Technologies. The software launched here in October — years behind schedule — and is used by dispatchers, police officers, firefighters and jail staff to conduct their daily business.

When Everett firefighters request a second alarm, an automated process is supposed to call all on-duty crews in the city to the scene, said Meghan Pembroke, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office. The second-alarm also brings in firefighters from neighboring departments to handle other routine emergencies in Everett during the fire.

The New World software has a local history of struggling more on the fire side of emergency response than the crime side.

Everett police officers work out of their patrol cars and get dispatched through their radios, Pembroke said. Officers have reported complaints about the software, but not at the same level of firefighters, she said.

Firefighters are dispatched through radios, computers and pagers. Fire scenes then are managed by a battalion chief, who coordinates and delegates tasks.

A second alarm involves multiple fire departments, fire stations, and even summoning specific kinds of rigs. It’s not as simple as making a few phone calls, Pembroke said.

“The battalion chief has many responsibilities during an active incident, and must rely on the dispatchers to activate a second alarm,” Pembroke said.

Stephanson has been paying attention to New World issues, and the delay of the second alarm at the warehouse fire was “especially concerning,” Pembroke said. “It was fortunate that nobody was injured.”

Stephanson’s letter also noted that millions of public dollars and numerous hours of staff time have been invested in the project.

“The primary purpose of this system is to keep our community safe by dispatching emergency responders in a timely and efficient manner,” he wrote. “The New World System has failed to do that on a number of occasions, and that is simply unacceptable.”

New World’s problems surrounding fire dispatching aren’t unique to Snohomish County. NORCOM, a King County dispatch center that includes the Bothell Fire Department, ended up dropping the fire component of New World and went with another vendor. New World in 2014 agreed to pay NORCOM $850,000 to settle the dispute out of court.

A few months ago, representatives from SNOPAC, SNOCOM and the Everett Fire Department visited NORCOM to see how things are working out there.

The Everett firefighters union, Local 46, is glad to see the mayor investigating the problems, President Paul Gagnon said Thursday. The union has long argued that more firefighters and paramedics are needed in Everett, and concerns about staffing and software performance need “discussion and scrutiny,” he said.

Meanwhile, New World’s owners provided what should be a permanent fix for the second-alarm issue from the warehouse fire, SNOPAC Executive Director Kurt Mills said. That happened June 9.

“We’re committed to seeing this (project) through,” he said. “We share the concerns of the mayor and I’m confident that New World is going to respond and continue to partner with us on addressing the issues.”

There was a two-alarm fire in Stanwood on Wednesday night, and “the system performed fine,” Mills said.

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