The radio system for every first responder in Spokane County – fire, police and Washington State Patrol – abruptly went dead for three hours Wednesday night.
“It took out the entire region’s communication system,” said Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich. “They promised that this would never happen.”
The dispatch center was able to answer 911 calls and could communicate with law enforcement through the in-car computers, Knezovich said. All other communication had to happen via cell phone. The outage meant that deputies only responded to emergency calls where there was a danger to health and safety, Knezovich said.
“It would phase in and out,” he said of the radio system. “We did not have steady, complete radio traffic. That became a major problem.”
Spokane Fire Assistant Chief Brian Schaeffer said when the system went offline some of his crews, along with crews from several other agencies, were battling a brush fire along Interstate 90 on the Sunset Hill.
“We couldn’t talk to each other,” he said. “More important, we couldn’t talk to dispatch.”
Once they determined the radios were out, crews were called on their cellphones and told to switch over to the old VHF radio system, which works on line of sight, said Schaeffer.
But the station alerting system also went off line, which meant that crews were dispatched using pagers. They knew an address and the type of call, but nothing else. Dispatchers usually relay details about the patient and/or the location, Schaeffer said.
“All that pre-arrival information is critical,” he said.
Technicians hurried to troubleshoot the system and rebooted parts of it, which brought it back online. The system was up and running normally on Thursday. Experts are flying out to diagnose the problem and make sure it doesn’t happen again, Knezovich said.
“We were promised that there was no way there would ever be a single point failure, which happened last night,” he said. “The most important thing right now is to figure out how this type of failure can happen. I haven’t heard of this type of failure before.”
A preliminary theory is that the switches in the system got caught in the loop, he said. “They’re not supposed to do that.”
The radio system got a $47 million upgrade that went live in early 2014. The new digital system was praised because it would allow fire and law enforcement personnel to communicate directly with each other. It was also to extend coverage to dead zones not covered by the old system.
“It’s an upgraded system, but its technology,” Knezovich said.
Knezovich said he worked closely with other officials Wednesday night to get through the outage and they will be working to come up with a plan in case there are future outages. He praised the work done by the communications center in keeping things running as much as possible.
“Our dispatch did a wonderful job,” he said.