Tuesday, April 15, 2008

15 punished for 911 screw-up

Brenda Orr of Doylestown, Pennsylvania was trapped in a burning bed, immobilized by multiple sclerosis, when she dialed 911 on Jan. 29. Twenty-eight seconds passed before a 911 dispatcher answered her call, and her put her on hold and it took 26 more seconds for a second dispatcher to pick up.

"911. The bed is on fire," Orr yelled into her phone.

By then a minute had elapsed since Orr had first dialed. A half-minute later, she spoke her final words before the phone went dead.

"The bed is fully inflamed," she said.

Bucks County officials, acknowledging that Orr's call had been mishandled, announced that 11 dispatchers and four supervisors had been disciplined for their roles in dealing with it.

Orr died in the quick-moving house fire. While a faster response by the dispatchers would not have saved her, "mistakes were made, and for those mistakes we are truly sorry," said James F. Cawley, chairman of the Board of County Commissioners.

Under county regulations, the phone should have been answered within 10 seconds, and Orr should not have been placed on hold. In a dispatch center where answering the phone is a basic duty, 10 unoccupied dispatchers sat by and let it ring. Orr's call finally was taken by a frustrated dispatcher who already was juggling an ambulance call.

"While the phone was ringing six times, there were 10 people on duty who were capable of answering the phone call who failed to do so," Cawley said. "That was wrong."

Had one of them answered, there would have been no need to put Orr on hold. All 10 were disciplined, along with the dispatcher who, by taking the call, violated rules by trying to handle two calls at once.

"911. Can you hold one second please?" the dispatcher is heard saying to Orr on a recording of the call.

"I can't," Orr responds. "This is an emergency, 911 emergency. . . . Bed on fire."

The dispatcher then summoned another dispatcher, who did not get to the phone for 25 seconds. The second dispatcher, who had been occupied with receiving a fax, has not been disciplined.

The first dispatcher had picked up the call "out of frustration," said Brent Wiggins, the county's director of emergency services. He said none of the 10 idle dispatchers could explain why the call was not answered right away.

"They were off-base. They weren't paying attention to their job. They were just not doing their job properly," Wiggins said. "That's the bottom line. . . . One or two said they thought someone else was going to pick up the phone."

Of four supervisors on duty, three had gone to a meeting - on training fire dispatchers. That left just one to monitor the room. And that supervisor was "working on reports," according to the county's investigative summary. "No supervisor was actively monitoring the dispatch floor at the time of the call."

All four supervisors were disciplined.

The county's findings came after Doylestown Borough police reviewed the 911 call as part of their investigation into the fire. Alerted by police, borough officials demanded an explanation from the county.

Police and firefighters arrived at Orr's house in better-than-average time, Cawley said. The first rescuers were there less than four minutes after Orr's call, but by then the fire was too intense for them to reach her.

Department policy now requires at least two supervisors to monitor the dispatch floor at all times. And a policy that implied that 911 calls were never to be put on hold has now been made explicit, he said. (info from Philadelphia Inquirer)

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