Relying on 911 Emergency Systems Can Often Be a Fatal Mistake

By Steven DiJoseph
On September 11, 2001, the New York City 911 emergency telephone systems was pushed to, and then beyond, its limits. While the tapes from that fateful day confirm that many 911 operators attempted to handle the frantic calls from people trapped in the World Trade Center towers to the best of their ability, another far less reassuring scenario was repeated over and over again.

Many of the operators simply did not know what to do with the calls and in several cases actually gave victims the wrong advice. Telling those trapped on the upper floors of the doomed towers to wait for help to arrive, or to pray, or to calm down, may have cost many victims, who might have escaped, their lives.

Valuable time was lost and proper evacuation instructions were never given. In some instances operators were heard expressing complete helplessness and inability to deal with the situation.

When a 911 system fails under the stress of an event as catastrophic as September 11, many would say that it is understandable. Experts, however, do not agree and point out that such failures only highlight systemic problems that play themselves out even in situations involving a single caller.

Operator training and preparation is a serious soft spot in most 911 systems. Only yesterday, news services around the world carried the story of a 5-year-old Michigan boy who called 911 to report his mother had collapsed and was unconscious.

According to Robert Turner, now 6, the dispatcher told him, “Stop playing on the phone.” No ambulance was sent then or even after the boy called 911 again three hours later.

When “help” finally arrived hours after the second call, the child’s mother was dead. An attorney for the woman’s estate claims she would have been saved had an ambulance been dispatched when the first 911 call was made.

In a similar incident in the same city (Detroit), a woman who had been shot in the head by her husband was asked by the 911 operator if she had a mental problem. The dispatcher then asked to speak with the husband who had done the shooting. Only a third call from the woman’s son, who lived in another state, finally brought help to the woman who is now paralyzed.

Another extremely serious problem is that very few municipalities have any technology at all to locate a caller who is using a cell phone to contact 911.

In November 1993, 18-year-old Jennifer Koon dialed 911 from her cell phone while being viciously attacked. The upstate New York dispatcher then listened helplessly for 20 minutes while Jennifer was beaten, driven to an alley, and shot to death.

Although in 1993, the technology didn’t exist to find Jennifer in time to save her, very little as been done to upgrade 911 systems to include such technology now that it does.

Thus, 10 years after Jennifer Koon was murdered, New York City’s 911 system showed it was no more reliable when four boys drowned after calling 911 from a sinking rowboat in 2003.

Rescuers didn’t start looking until hours later because they couldn’t pinpoint the location of the late-night call.

New York City upgraded its 911 system to receive wireless location information in August 2004.

Even when a 911 call is properly received and transferred to police for immediate response, glitches in the system can prove fatal.

In one of the most infamous cases of a 911 foul-up – but far from the only one – an upstate New York woman, Amalia DeLong called 911 and reported “a burglar” was “trying to break in the house; please come right away.”

Although the young mother clearly gave the dispatcher the correct address (less than two blocks from the police station) the operator recorded the wrong house number. As a result of the error, the police in the wrong town responded, found no such address and, of course, found no burglary in progress.

It was not until neighbors saw Ms. Delong running from her house naked and bleeding profusely that a follow-up call brought police to the correct address. As the woman lay dying from seven knife wounds, she could only utter the words, “The baby. The baby.”  Her infant child watched from the doorway as this happened.

The delay of 12 minutes proved fatal and, as a result, a jury awarded DeLong’s estate $200,000 for conscious pain and suffering and $600,000 for her wrongful death. These awards were quite substantial in 1982 when the case was finally tried. (The incident itself occurred in 1976).

The damage awards were affirmed on appeal to the Appellate Division, Fourth Department and, ultimately, the liability finding was affirmed by New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.

The basis for the finding of liability that was affirmed in New York was that once a municipality sets up a specific telephone system to respond to emergencies, it must handle the calls that are received in a careful and reasonable way. This is because those availing themselves of the system are relying on the municipality thereby creating a “special duty” on its part to the caller.

While 911 emergency systems have undoubtedly saved many lives and responded admirably to countless emergencies, crimes, and disasters, it cannot be said that the systems are trustworthy.

Until dispatchers receive proper training, clerical errors are eliminated, and state-of-the-art technology is installed in an interlocking web of 911 systems nationwide, the performance of such emergency response numbers will be inconsistent at best.

The 2004 assessment that, “We’re stuck with what we’ve got,” by William Belote, then chief of the Commerce Department’s Emergency Planning and Public Safety Division, is hardly the kind of “excuse” little Robert Turner, the parents of the four boys who drowned in 2003, or Amalia DeLong’s child should have to accept.

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