West Seattle Block Watch Captains Network talks safety, community, 911, more

Southwest Precinct commander Capt. Pierre Davis gives a status update with help from Operations Lt. Steve Strand, as WSBWCN co-founders/co-leaders Deb Greer and Karen Berge lead the meeting.

Story and photos by Jason Grotelueschen
Reporting for West Seattle Blog

Neighborhood advocates gathered on Tuesday night at the Southwest Precinct for the first 2019 meeting of the West Seattle Block Watch Captains Network (WSBWCN), to discuss issues and opportunities for the community.

It was the group’s first meeting since October, and featured idea-sharing for neighborhood improvement, an update from police leadership and a presentation about 9-1-1 effectiveness.

WSBWCN co-leaders Deb Greer and Karen Berge called the meeting to order and asked attendees to go around the room and share thoughts regarding two key questions:

  1. What are the major problems in your neighborhood?
  2. What issues do you plan to work on with your Block Watch this year?

Several attendees noted that they have “a great block” with neighbors looking out for each other and raising issues when they see them, prompting nods of agreements around the room. Some common problems noted by many attendees, though, included:

  • Car prowls
  • Package theft
  • Limited parking
  • Increased traffic volumes and speed
  • Dog waste (people not picking up after their pets)
  • Homeless encampments

Most attendees agreed that two of their top priorities for 2019, along with scheduling recurring gatherings like the annual Night Out block parties, were:

  • Updating lists of neighbors, with contact information. With people moving in and out of the neighborhoods, this is a common theme.
  • Focus on emergency preparedness and readiness, to ensure neighbors know how to take care of each other and connect with local fire, police and medical resources in case of an emergency.

Greer and Berge compiled these notes for a meeting they’re planned later this week with City Council member-at-large Teresa Mosqueda, who asked for a compiled list of priorities. Neighbors who have other ideas are encouraged to submit them via wsblockwatchnet@gmail.com or the WSBWNC Facebook group. Greer and Berge also noted that these priorities will help them tailor their meeting agendas in 2019 to bring in the right speakers and guests.

Next up was Southwest Precinct commander Capt. Pierre Davis, who (along with Operations Lt. Steve Strand, also in attendance) provided an update on department activity along with a “2018 summary” much like last week’s West Seattle Crime Prevention Council meeting (WSB coverage here). Highlights included a reduction in crimes against people, as well as a 2.8% decrease in property crimes, which Davis credited in large part to community members “saying something and letting us know” when they see questionable activity.

Davis said that Block Watch activities are “at the ground floor of everything,” and stressed how crucial it is for neighbors to “talk to each other and to keep that line of communication open” with the local precinct. He noted that the department is working on combining resources to be more efficient and embrace some new strategies, but stressed that “we’re not bashful” and want to hear feedback from the community. “Our mindset is end-game,” Davis said, “and we don’t want to put resources toward things that aren’t working,” especially as we move into the summer months when criminal activity tends to increase (in 2018 it peaked in July, according to Davis).

Lt. Strand shared a success story from earlier that day in which officers responded to a call from the 9th Ave SW area in which a mysterious car was blocking a driveway. It turned out that the vehicle belonged to a suspect in a recent Renton murder case, so the car was towed and the Renton PD is now investigating.

Davis added that, in 2019, neighbors should expect to see officers “saturating the area” in higher numbers in response to data regarding increased activity, because “generally bad guys don’t like to be where the cops are.” He also cited the work of people like Crime Prevention Coordinator Jennifer Danner in the area of community policing, and the precinct’s cooperation with the prosecutor’s office and Department of Corrections to ensure that repeat offenders get more jail time and know that “it’s not a place they want to be.”

In response to a comment from the room that “a lot of people don’t want to call 911 because the cops will come to their house,” Davis noted that people should always feel compelled to call if they have a tip, and if that person says they prefer “no contact” then the officers will honor that.  In response to a couple of questions regarding response to reported issues with homeless encampments, Davis noted that several government policies have changed (including some policies from Mayor Durkan’s office, who had a representative present at Tuesday’s meeting) that impact how his department can address homeless encampments. He said the Navigation Team must be engaged for any encampment report involving more than one individual, and that previously his department “could address a 2-4 person encampment with no problem.” He said what his officers can do is to visit the sites, talk to the neighbors and explain the existing policies, and then go from there.

The main presentation of the evening was from Kayreen Lum, E-911 Outreach and Training Specialist for King County, which has 12 call centers in the area. Lum, who happens to be a West Seattleite (Arbor Heights), talked about last month’s 9-1-1 outage as well as new features and capabilities for the 911 system.

              Kayreen Lum, King County 911

The system’s new “text-to-911” service launched in Seattle and King County last month, and allows customers to use the text-messaging function already available in their cell phones (no special apps or software required) to send text messages with “911” as the recipient, and initiate text conversations with the actual call center. Lum stressed some key points:

  • The primary way customers should contact 911 is the old-fashioned way, with a phone call — “call first, it’s faster, but if you can’t call, then text.”
  • Examples of ideal scenarios for the text service include: hard-of-hearing customers, people using their phones while hiding from an intruder or abuser, and people who need to report an emergency discreetly from a residence or vehicle.
  • Just like the phone service, the text service is for emergencies only (police, fire, and medical)
  • If you use the text service, make sure that your first text includes 1) the address where the emergency is occurring, and 2) a short description of the emergency. Lum said that just those pieces of information are sometimes enough to initiate the proper emergency response.
  • Although it is sometimes possible for 911 call centers to determine a caller’s approximate location based on cell towers, it is still crucial for the caller to specify the exact address or location of the emergency. Technology to improve location-determination is improving at the national level as part of “Next Generation 911” efforts, Lum said, but isn’t there yet. For example, location technology has no concept of “height” (what floor of a building you’re on).
  • The text system can’t accept pictures or videos, only plain text, and only supports English at this time. If customers need help in other languages, the phone call centers still provide access to interpreters for more than 170 languages.
  • Services like chat, Skype or downloadable message apps won’t work with the text-to-911 system.  Callers need to use the standard text-messaging that’s built into their phone.

Next, Lum talked about the statewide/nationwide 911 outage that affected West Seattle for approximately a 12-hour period beginning the evening of Dec 27. A phone message was sent to customers late that evening, after the outage was confirmed by officials. Lum said that in the state of Washington, 46 call centers across 33 of Washington’s 39 counties appear to have been affected, most likely tied to an issue with service provider CenturyLink that is still under investigation. The exact cause of the issue is still unknown, as is the exact number of customers who tried to use 911 but were unsuccessful. But the available data paints a pretty clear picture of the issue:

Seattle 911 data showing “zero calls” for a 6-hr period beginning the evening of Dec. 27

The data also shows the problem that often occurs when notifications like this are sent — customers “testing the system” and calling 911 just to see if it’s working, or to “complain about the phone message they received.” These calls can jam up the system and slow down response times, Lum said, and the effect is real:

Data from Valley Communications (911 for the South Sound) showing an increase of almost 5x in 911 call volume after the notification phone call was sent

Lum said that the state Attorney General’s office is asking that any customer who tried contacting 911 but was unsuccessful during the outage should contact them to let them know. Lum noted that this isn’t the area’s first 911 outage (there was one in 2014), and that the city does have alternative 10-digit numbers that have performed fine during outages, and Lum suggests that customers save these numbers in their cell phone contacts:

  • 206-583-2111 (10-digit emergency number for the City of Seattle, goes to the same call center)
  • 206-625-5011 (non-emergency number for the City of Seattle)

Lum emphasized that if you’re in an emergency situation in Seattle, “try 911 first, if that doesn’t work, use the 10-digit emergency number.” The 10-digit number is also useful in instances in which you’re calling from out of the area, such as if you’re on vacation and a neighbor calls you and says there is suspicious activity at your home. The non-emergency number could be for instances such as reporting a bicycle that was stolen overnight, Lum said.

Lum noted that the area’s 911 service has already been in the process for a while now of migrating platforms from CenturyLink to a new provider (Comtech) and that the larger investigation about what went wrong in the Dec 27 outage is still in progress. She also said that as part of their “after action” plan following the outage, the county is working on updating their website to better communicate the 10-digital alternative number and to more clearly articulate how customers should (and shouldn’t) use 911.

In response to a question about the caller ID number of the Dec. 27 late-night call (“we screen our calls and didn’t recognize the number and it was late, so we ignored it”), Lum said that the alert likely came from the AlertSeattle network, which is a partner network, and is one of a number of resources that Lum highly recommends customers use:

  • Sign up for AlertSeattle, the official emergency notification system used by the City of Seattle to communicate with city residents during emergencies. Receive free alerts from the city via text message, email, voice message or social media.
  • Sign up for Smart911.com

In response to a question about how cell phone area codes are used (“my neighbor has Puyallup cell number, she called 911 and made a point of telling the dispatcher that she is in Seattle not Puyallup, but is it necessary for her to do that?”), Lum said that a cell phone’s area code has nothing to do with how 911 handles the call.  Lum said her personal cell phone was purchased in another state and still has that state’s area code in the number, but if she were to call Seattle 911, the call would be routed to the Seattle call center based on where the closest cell tower is. But regardless, Lum said it’s crucial for callers to tell the 911 center right away what address they are calling about, to expedite the process.

In summary, Lum offered a few takeaways for Seattle 911 customers:

  • If you need help, call 911 first, if that doesn’t work then use the 10-digit emergency number.
  • Only use the text-to-911 option if you’re unable to call.
  • Don’t “test” the system by calling 911 just to be sure it works
  • Only call 911 if you are involved in an emergency situation and you or someone else needs immediate assistance. Don’t call just to ask questions, such as (for example) “I think I felt an earthquake tremor, was that an earthquake?” because in the event of an actual emergency, those calls delay actual emergency responses.

The West Seattle Block Watch Captains Network meets fourth Thursdays most months, 6:30 pm, at the Southwest Precinct – watch the WSBWCN website for updates between meetings.

8 Replies to "West Seattle Block Watch Captains Network talks safety, community, 911, more"

  • Jon Wright January 23, 2019 (2:13 pm)

    It feels like there is a disconnect between Ms. Lum’s message (“Only call 911 if you are involved in an emergency situation and you or someone else needs immediate assistance”) and what we are often told by Police Department lesdership (“Call 911 anytime you see something you think is suspicious”). Seems like there is an opportunity for them to get on the same page.

    • T January 23, 2019 (8:47 pm)

      I agree Jon. I have heard conflicting things for a decade +.

    • JasonG January 24, 2019 (8:06 am)

      Hi, author here. I won’t pretend to speak for Ms. Lum, but based on her broader comments in the meeting, I think she would agree that it’s certainly appropriate to call 911 if you see something suspicious that you feel could become (or contribute to) an emergency situation impacting you or someone near you. The distinction she was drawing in the meeting was between “real emergencies” versus people just “testing the system” or filing complaints about things that have zero potential to become emergencies. That’s my take, FWIW.

  • cjboffoli January 23, 2019 (4:20 pm)

    How nice to see a Jason Grotelueschen byline!

    • JasonG January 24, 2019 (7:56 am)


  • Sandra Adams January 23, 2019 (4:52 pm)

    Jason does a very thorough job or reporting.  Nice you have him on your team :)

  • Teresa January 24, 2019 (6:16 am)

    I believe the non-emergency number is (206) 625-5011

    • (This is how it was posted in above article: 206-635-5011 (non-emergency number for the City of Seattle))
    • WSB January 24, 2019 (6:22 am)

      For SPD, yes. Thanks, fixing.

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