Four minutes doesn't seem like much time to most people, but for dispatchers, every minute can mean the difference between life and death.
On New Year's Eve in 2015, the Snohomish County Police Staff and Auxiliary Services Center (SNOPAC), a 9-1-1 Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP), received a call regarding a mattress fire in an apartment complex.
According to Karl Christian, Operations Support Specialist, this fire was of special concern due to the size of the apartment complex — 217 apartment homes in total — and the number of lives at stake. Unlike a structure fire at a home or smaller dwelling, this fire had the potential to be harder to control.
"We were told by the caller that the fire was already spreading and there was a person trapped inside the room with the burning mattress," Christian said. "When the first units responded, we knew that this was going to be a very gigantic call for service."
Christian said an additional concern came from the fact that on New Year's Eve, PSAPs everywhere are inundated with higher-than-normal call volumes, and a fire emergency would only add to the intensity of the night.
However, when that call came in at 7:09 p.m., within 45 seconds, SNOPAC had first responders en route to the scene of the fire at the south end of the city of Everett, WA.
Within five minutes of the initial call for service, the fire had already spread beyond the apartment with the burning mattress. Smoke could be seen billowing out of the second floor of the apartment complex.
When units arrived on the scene at 7:14 p.m., residents who had been unable to escape the smoke and flames were jumping from second-story windows.
Several residents were in need of medical attention, and the individual who had been trapped in the room with the burning mattress died before first responders arrived.
One minute after the first string of responders had arrived, the fire spread to another building in the apartment complex. At 7:16 p.m., the fire emergency was advanced to a second alarm.
As more units responded to the scene from multiple agencies across the county, the fire was moved to a third-alarm as it became more severe and difficult to contain. By then, more than 90 firefighters and emergency personnel had responded to the call.
By the time the blaze reached third-alarm status, only 11 minutes had passed from the moment the call for service first came in to SNOPAC.
Because of its designation as a third-alarm fire, four engine companies, two ladder companies, three battalion chiefs, two deputy chiefs, and one mask service unit were on the scene.
What made this fire emergency even more dangerous was the fact that it was an older complex with no sprinkler system in the apartments or throughout the buildings. This allowed the fire to spread rapidly through the attic and much of the building.
"It was a labor-intensive effort to get this fire under control," Christian said. "But units from all over the county worked their hardest to rescue those in need of help and extinguish the fire."
Seven apartments in the complex were affected by the fire, while 23 other units were damaged by smoke and water. Fifteen residents required medical treatment both on the scene and at the local hospital. Volunteers with the Red Cross were on hand to help displaced residents.
By approximately 2:30 a.m. the following morning, crews had left the scene and operations were reduced to maintenance level, according to Christian.
"We were able to save the structures around the unit where the fire started as well as several interconnected buildings," Christian said.
The ability for dispatch to get crews en route within 30-45 seconds after the call came in regarding the New Year's Eve fire, helped prevent additional loss of life and injuries.
To do this, SNOPAC dispatchers utilized their computer aided dispatch software to route first responders throughout the multi-jurisdictional area to the scene within seconds of the call. The technology, including Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) functionality, provided dispatchers as well as responders with the ability to view the location of all rescue units in relation to the burning apartment building.
According to Christian, SNOPAC did not always have the ability to dispatch across jurisdictional lines as efficiently as they do now. The technology and the collaboration of the agencies throughout the county made the interconnection and efficient coordination of resources possible. Had they been using their old dispatching software, the rescue response would have taken an additional 3-6 minutes.
SNOPAC and SNOCOM, the two PSAPs located in Snohomish County, had previously worked independently from each other, which caused significant delays in dispatching services to citizens within the county.
However, the two communication centers along with their 53 affiliated agencies recently came together to serve the multi-jurisdictional area by using a common public safety software platform. In doing so, both SNOPAC and SNOCOM have reduced the amount of call transfers and increased their ability to dispatch units across jurisdictional lines.
"We would have had to make phone calls back and forth between the outlying agencies to get the level of response this fire required," Christian said. "Making the request for other units to respond would have resulted in more time spent dispatching, which could have meant this situation ended in more loss and tragedy."
Fire officials ruled that the cause of the fire was undetermined, although they were able to say that it originated in a bedroom and on a mattress.
For SNOPAC, the fire further proved to the 9-1-1 center that their abilities to dispatch first responders safely and more efficiently helps keep residents of Snohomish County safer than ever before.
SNOPAC is a part of a multi-agency consortium that uses New World public safety CAD, records, mobile, field reporting, corrections, and fire software solutions to provide public safety services to the residents of Snohomish County in Washington.
To learn more about the Automatic Vehicle Location functionality (AVL) read the Greene County Sheriff's Office Case Study.
To learn more about the technology involved in this story, read the SNOCOM/SNOPAC Case Study.
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