Software delayed 2nd fire responders to Everett blaze

EVERETT — The firefighters knew they needed backup.

The burning warehouse at 101 E. Marine View Drive was full of junk, and the fire was growing.

Within minutes of arriving on scene, the Everett crews asked emergency dispatchers to upgrade the response to a second alarm.

That step, the designation of a “two-alarm fire,” is supposed to bring help in the form of a second wave of firefighters, rigs and resources.

The Everett Fire Department made that request for the June 4 warehouse fire at 7:07 p.m.

But the second alarm, something that’s supposed to happen in seconds, didn’t sound for nearly 23 minutes, according to public records obtained by The Daily Herald.

That delay was due to a problem with new emergency dispatching software, records show. The software, called New World Systems, launched in Snohomish County in October, after years of delays and disputes. Leaders on the project say they still are ironing out some trouble spots. They caution that any new computer system, rolled out to thousands of users at once, has hiccups.

At the same time, problems at the warehouse fire were significant enough that they were documented in a memo three days after the blaze.

The New World software is used by Snohomish County dispatchers, police and firefighters to organize emergency responses and records. It’s also used at the county jail.

Police and firefighters have been complaining about the new system for months, in private, in public and over their emergency radios during incidents.

The cause of the June 4 fire remains under investigation. The destroyed warehouse and land had an assessed value of $4.84 million, according to county property records. An accurate damage estimate still is being calculated, Everett Fire Marshal Eric Hicks said Monday.

The site has been fenced off, and “there are no more smoking piles of debris,” he said.

That riverfront property has a complicated history of regulatory problems. The owners and past tenants are embroiled in an ongoing multimillion-dollar lawsuit involving site cleanup.

Public records show that since the warehouse fire, officials have been trying to figure out what went wrong with the dispatching.

Leaders at SNOPAC, the 911 center that serves Everett, sent a June 7 memo that detailed the dispatching errors. The three-page memo was shared with city officials.

The newspaper obtained a copy under state public records laws, along with the audio recording of the emergency radio traffic from that night.

The fire was reported at 6:55 p.m. One minute later, a railroad employee called 911 to report seeing smoke, but no flames.

Days earlier, Everett firefighters had been warned about ongoing fire hazards from the piles of wood and debris in the warehouse. That included two small fires there in the week leading up to the blaze.

At first, firefighters thought the June 4 fire would be the same kind of nuisance. They called off the help that was on the way from Marysville, records show.

About four and a half minutes later, though, they changed their minds and asked for the second alarm. About a minute after that, they also alerted everyone on scene that it was too dangerous to try to save the warehouse. The objective became protecting the neighboring business, Everett Engineering.

Recordings from that night show that 15 minutes into the response — about 7:10 p.m. — a fire department higher-up was on his radio, making sure the second alarm had been activated. That was Tim Key, the chief of emergency medical services.

The dispatcher told Key: “That’s affirmative, but the software won’t allow me to get any additional units (requested).”

That was the first indication to crews on the scene that the second alarm hadn’t actually been started.

Key asked dispatchers to find another way to get more rigs rolling. Those crews can be heard being requested on the radio a short time later.

About 23 minutes into the fire, the walls of the warehouse started to collapse. Firefighters radioed there had been an explosion, apparently involving propane tanks. Everyone on scene was ordered to stay clear of the collapse zone.

About 27 minutes into the incident, firefighters asked for a third alarm.

The dispatcher told them: “Just be advised I’m having issues. The software’s not recommending any more units when I increase the alarms.”

The battalion chief, who was in charge of the scene, replied, “Received. Reporting New World software not able to produce third alarm. If there’s a manual way you can do that, it would be much appreciated.”

The radio recording also makes clear that, by that point, the crews were struggling to get enough water flowing out of area hydrants. They asked the battalion chief to assign someone to coordinate water access and supply.

The battalion chief replied: “I’m out of people and New World’s unable to give us more. When I get more people, I will get water flowing.”

About 90 seconds after the request for the third alarm, the dispatcher reported, “New World has started working again.”

According to the SNOPAC memo, the dispatchers said the New World software “grayed out” a button they needed to click on their computer screens to add second and third alarms.

Three dispatchers and their supervisor “all tried to upgrade the alarm level with the same results,” the SNOPAC memo states.

By 7:30 p.m., they figured out a work-around and got the second and third alarms rolling. Some crews in the area already had heard the radio traffic and assigned themselves to the call.

The warehouse was Everett’s first three-alarm blaze since the deadly New Year’s Eve fire at the Bluffs apartments along Casino Road.

The day after the warehouse fire, SNOPAC leaders ran tests to see if they could figure out what went wrong. The tests had mixed results. In one test, the problem didn’t happen again. In others, it did. SNOPAC tried running the software for the same kind of fire response in different parts of the county. They hit the same roadblock, an inability to summon a second alarm.

“It appeared a cascade of events caused the (second-alarm) button to be inaccessible to the dispatcher,” the memo states.

Later that day, June 5, SNOPAC leaders made tweaks to the way New World handles fires. By June 6 — two days after the fire — they figured out a way dispatchers could have resolved the issue within the software.

The SNOPAC managers determined the dispatchers “did not seize the opportunity to troubleshoot” during the fire.

Even so, SNOPAC told New World that fixing the problem was a high priority, according to the memo.

The vendor “gave us a fix last week,” SNOPAC Executive Director Kurt Mills said Monday.

Firefighters always will expect a quick response to a second alarm, even though large fires are rare in Everett, city spokeswoman Meghan Pembroke said in a prepared statement. In the case of the warehouse fire, crews already had decided the situation was too dangerous for them to stay inside the building. They had turned their focus to saving the neighboring business.

“It’s difficult to know whether a timelier second-alarm response would have changed the outcome of this fire,” she said.

Criticism of New World can be a touchy subject. That’s in part because major safety concerns are at play along with the typical gripes that accompany people learning any new technology.

In February, a different Everett battalion chief received a reprimand for telling a dispatcher on the radio, “This New World system is going to get someone killed,” public records show. The battalion chief was frustrated with how the software assigned rigs to help someone with a head wound. He was told in the reprimand that his comment was “divisive and counterproductive” even though he had “a valid issue.”

The battalion chief wrote his bosses that he stood by his comment because he believed it to be accurate, in spite of the reprimand. He said he hoped New World project leaders would “awaken” to what he considered critical failures.

The New World software project started in Snohomish County in 2009, with an initial go-live date set for 2011. The Herald first reported on the project’s problems in January 2014.

In May 2015, the sheriff’s office talked publicly about the possibility of ditching New World and finding another vendor. New World replaced a decades-old system rife with its own issues.

As of the October launch, New World had cost taxpayers in Snohomish County about $6.8 million.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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