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News / Northwest

Former Seattle 911 manager says he warned city about deadly dispatch problem

By Daniel Beekman, The Seattle Times
Published: December 20, 2022, 7:42am

SEATTLE — A former manager at Seattle’s 911 call center says he was wrongly punished for speaking up about problems at work, including a practice that remains in use more than a year after allegedly leading to a man’s heart attack death.

Brian Smith says he raised concerns about certain addresses being flagged as dangerous for first responders based on potentially erroneous information about residents — and did so before the practice caused medics to wait for a police escort and needlessly delay treating heart attack victim William Yurek.

Yurek died in his Crown Hill townhouse in November 2021 despite his 13-year-old son having called 911 for help.

Some homes like Yurek’s have been flagged with “caution notes” in Seattle’s 911 dispatch systems based on previous interactions with people at those addresses, even though the involved residents might no longer live there, said Smith, who resigned in August as administrative manager at the city’s Community Safety and Communications Center. He filed a claim for damages against the city in September.

“The community member died in front of his child,” Smith wrote in a resignation letter to Christopher Lombard, the center’s interim director. “This likely would not have happened had you listened to my concerns.”

Yurek’s adult daughter and ex-wife, the guardian of his minor children, filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city earlier this month, alleging that Yurek would have had a very good chance of survival if the medics hadn’t been instructed to wait.

In response to questions from The Seattle Times, the city’s police and fire departments pointed to guidelines, revised this year, that say caution notes can be used to record information about people, as well as information about buildings (like door codes and hazardous materials), with some limits aimed at reducing outdated information. Bill Schrier, a spokesperson for the Community and Safety and Communications Center, described caution notes as “exceptionally rare” and said they usually deal with information about buildings.

Schrier said there are 1,678 caution notes among 282,000 addresses in the Community and Safety and Communication Center’s computer system, which handles police dispatching. He didn’t say how many are about people. The Fire Department’s system has 3,151 caution or occupancy notes among 211,735 locations. The vast majority deal with building access; the system isn’t searchable for notes related to individuals, said Kristin Tinsley, a spokesperson.

Smith’s claim alleges that he was harassed, suspended, demoted and moved to a less-desirable shift “in retaliation for reporting and speaking out against my manager’s actions and decisions that created a public safety risk.” The claim for lost wages and benefits, filed in September as a precursor to a potential lawsuit, says Smith experienced stress, anxiety and depression when he was forced to place his public-safety concerns ahead of his career.

Smith’s resignation letter said he also raised concerns about the city mishandling a 911 outage in December 2021 and that he complained the following month about Lombard lowering the pay rate of an employee helping Smith’s team. In a January letter to Smith, Lombard said Smith had been put on administrative leave or “reassessment,” pending a review of his “untoward behavior” in a meeting between the two men. The leave lasted eight months, according to Smith.

The City Attorney’s Office declined to comment on Smith’s claim and the Yurek lawsuit.

Smith wants the public to know about the problem of addresses being flagged because of potentially incomplete or outdated information about people, he said in an interview earlier this month. Not only can the practice lead to unnecessary delays in medical responses, but flagging addresses based on previous interactions can also increase the possibility of police violence by needlessly preparing officers for danger, he said.

“This is not just a medical problem. This is a problem with police, as well,” said Smith, who worked for Seattle’s 911 center for 20 years, serving as a call taker, dispatcher and analyst before becoming administrative manager. He served on a regional advisory board for King County’s 911 systems from 2017 to 2021.

Caution notes

All 911 calls in Seattle are answered by the Community Safety and Communications Center, which until mid-2021 was located in the Police Department. Fire and medical calls get relayed to a separate Fire Department call center.

First responders can contact the call centers to add caution notes to addresses in their respective computer systems, Smith said. The notes pop up when responders are dispatched to those locations, he said. They can be placed on an entire apartment building or a single apartment, Schrier said.

For most of Smith’s career, he saw the notes used to record information about properties to save time and avoid problems during emergency responses, he said. For example, a note might include the door code for an apartment building or describe how to access a back door, he said. The notes are also used by the Fire Department to record information about dangerous sites, like collapsed or abandoned buildings.

The city’s dispatchers can assess interpersonal hazards by checking state and federal criminal databases for records linked to individuals, Smith said, describing that as sensible and appropriate. But in 2021, Smith heard from coworkers that address-based caution notes were being inappropriately used in the Community Safety and Communications Center system to record information about threats posed by people, he said. Residents weren’t told that their addresses had been flagged, he said.

Smith said he raised concerns with Lombard and other officials in summer 2021 about the potential problems for both fire and police department responses and advocated for a new policy to address what he viewed as a risky and improper practice.

“These electronic records have a high degree of inaccuracy, are effectively hidden from public disclosure and disproportionately place” people with low incomes and those experiencing housing instability at risk, because they move more often, Smith said.

The Police Department added a policy for caution notes this May that says the notes may be used for officer-safety concerns about people associated with particular locations. Such notes may remain in effect from one month to three years, with consideration for how long occupants are expected to stay at a given address, like whether they’re owners or renters. Such notes usually contain names, said Schrier, the Community Safety and Communications Center spokesperson.

“We are exploring options to ensure system notes are regularly reviewed,” he said.

The Fire Department’s guidelines, revised in November, define a category of caution notes as appropriate for hazardous people, activities and materials, including “mentally unstable” occupants with firearms and locations where “violent or threatening” occupants require police assistance. The guidelines say such notes should expire after one year unless reviewed and renewed, be verified after every visit and be removed if someone moves away.

Those limits don’t resolve Smith’s concerns, said his attorney, Gregory Hitzel. Smith believes the Police Department has now codified the practice he sought to eliminate and that the Fire Department’s guidelines still permit the sort of note that caused the delay in Yurek’s case, Hitzel said. It’s not clear how officials are supposed to know about an occupant moving or determine whether a caution note is still relevant, Hitzel said.

“Had Mr. Smith not been suspended and demoted he would have continued to advocate for the complete elimination of this kind of hazard notation,” Hitzel wrote in an email.

In Yurek’s case, medics eventually gave up on their police escort and entered Yurek’s home without officers, according to the suit, which says they performed CPR and used a defibrillator but were too late.

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“The family and I are grateful to Mr. Smith and others who have spoken out about this fatally flawed blacklist,” said Mark Lindquist, an attorney representing Yurek’s family. “We understand first responders want to help people. The city should be supporting rather than subverting public safety employees.”

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